Tunisia History

From the dawn of history, Tunisia's prime location has made it a target for numerous invasions and occupations from the Phoenicians and Romans to the French. Tools of early homo-erectus believed to date back over a million years have been found, with the country entering the Bronze Age around 2200BC.

Recorded history starts with the arrival of the Phoenicians in 1100BC, who, with their mercantile savvy, built a series of trading ports along the coast, the most important of which was Carthage. By the sixth century BC, the Carthaginians (the Phoenicians in Carthage) dominated the entire Western Mediterranean and managed to retain this power with only minor scuffles with the Greeks until the third century BC.

It was in 264BC that this all began to change in the form of the first Punic War against Rome. At this time the Romans had control over Italy, but little else, and had an intense desire to break the Carthaginian stranglehold over the Mediterranean. Over the ensuing decades, a total of three Punic Wars were fought, with Carthage finally toppling to the Romans in 146 BC.

Carthage was founded as a Roman city in 44BC by Augustus and Tunisia came under Roman control. The country was used mainly for agriculture, providing the Empire with olive oil and wheat among other products. The Vandals took advantage of the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and rose to dominance over the whole region until a century later - when the Byzantines gained power. This was to last only until the Arabs invaded in the 7th century and founded Kairouan as their capital in 670.

Over the ensuing centuries, a series of Muslim dynasties ruled over the area, briefly interrupted by rebellions from the native Berbers of Tunisia, who, though Muslim converts, did not conform to the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam and didn't welcome Arab dominance. Other foreign powers hadn't lost interest in the area, either, and there were (not very successful) invasions of the coastal cities by Norman Sicilians in the 12th century and by the Spanish in the 16th century.

During the 16th century the Ottoman Turks were gaining a foothold in the region, and eventually they conquered the Spanish in Tunisia in 1574. Under the bey (Ottoman ruler) the country enjoyed a period of relative independence and prosperity, though this wealth was derived mainly from North African pirates looting other Mediterranean ports and ships.

This piracy led to the eventual downfall of the bey rule in Tunisia, as resentment grew over the scale of the attacks. In 1815, the US attacked Tunis, finally putting an end to piracy, with devastating effects on the local economy. European powers took advantage of this economic downturn, with Italy, France and Britain quickly stepping in to take financial control. In 1881, following Tunisian attacks on neighbouring French-occupied Algeria, the French invaded Tunisia. The Bardo treaty forced the bey to cede the main reins of power to France, with Tunisia becoming a French protectorate.

The nationalist movement was not slow to react to this new occupier and several rebellions were attempted but quickly stamped out by the French army. Violent resistance to French rule increased further after the Second World War, however, and by 1954, the situation became untenable. 1956 saw Tunisia becoming an independent state under the leadership of the new prime minister Habib Bourguiba and in 1957, the bey was officially stripped of his title, making Bourguiba president. Bourguiba worked hard at making his new republic a modern, Westernised country, instituting radical social reforms and removing Islamic political involvement from many walks of life.

On the international front, there were continual tensions between Tunisia and France and later with Algeria. In 1963, the last vestiges of French rule were removed from the country with the remaining military forced out of French bases and France withdrawing financial support for Tunisia, leading to severe economic problems.

The following two decades saw some positive reforms, such as an apparent move to democracy in 1981, with Bourguiba allowing the establishment of opposing political parties. Relations also improved greatly with France, and Tunisia played an important role in international politics as a moderate Islamic country. However, considerable national unrest with the government grew during the 80s and Bourguiba, who was in his 80s, was eventually ousted by his minister for the interior, Zine el-Abidine ben Ali in 1987, who claimed that the former president was mentally unfit to rule.

Elections were held in 1989, in which ben Ali and his Democratic Constitutional Assembly Party won a landslide victory. The president has instituted a severe crackdown on Islamic militancy, banning an extremist party from running for government and promoting various policies that many would see as a "dumbing down" of any opposition. The ensuing elections of 1994 and 1999 were again won by the ruling party by an enormous margin - they gained 99 per cent of the vote each time, which led many observers to wonder just how free and democratic the system is. The country is currently fairly stable but mistrust of the government appears to be growing and if political reforms are not made, there may well be serious dissent among the Tunisian people.