The history of early Tunisia and its indigenous inhabitants, the Berbers, is obscure prior to the founding of Carthage by seafaring Phoenicians from Tyre (in present-day Lebanon) in the 9th century BC . A great mercantile state developed at Carthage (near modern-day Tunis), which proceeded to dominate the western Mediterranean world. The great Carthaginian general Hannibal engineered the monumental trans-Alpine assault on Rome in 211 BC and inflicted costly losses on the Roman Empire until choosing suicide rather than capture in 183 BC . Carthage was eventually burned to the ground by the Romans at the culmination of the Punic Wars in 146 BC . The Romans subsequently rebuilt the city, making it one of the great cities of the ancient world. With the decline of the Roman Empire, Tunisia fell successively to Vandal invaders during the 5th century AD , to the Byzantines in the 6th century, and finally to the Arabs in the 7th century. Thenceforth, Tunisia remained an integral part of the Muslim world.
In the 9th century, the governor of Tunisia, Ibrahim ibn Aghlab, founded a local dynasty nominally under the sovereignty of the 'Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. The Aghlabids conquered Sicily and made Tunisia prosperous. In 909, the Fatimids ended Aghlabid rule, using Tunisia as a base for their subsequent conquest of Egypt. They left Tunisia in control of the subordinate Zirid dynasty until the 11th century, when the Zirids rebelled against Fatimid control. The Fatimids unleashed nomadic Arab tribes, the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym, to punish the Zirids, a move resulting in the destruction of the Zirid state and the general economic decline of Tunisia. In the 13th century, the Hafsids, a group subordinate to the Almohad dynasty based in
Morocco, restored order to Tunisia. They founded a Tunisian dynasty that, from the 13th century to the 16th, made Tunisia one of the flourishing regions of North Africa. In the beginning of the 16th century, however, Spain's occupation of important coastal locations precipitated the demise of Hafsid rule.
In 1574, the Ottoman Turks occupied Tunisia, ruling it with a dey appointed by the Ottoman ruler. The dey's lieutenants, the beys, gradually became the effective rulers, in fact if not in name. Ultimately, in 1705, the bey Husayn ibn 'Ali established a dynasty. Successive Husaynids ruled Tunisia as vassals of the Ottomans until 1881 and under the French until 1956, the year of Tunisia's independence (the dynasty was abolished in 1957). During the 19th century, the Tunisian dynasts acted virtually as independent rulers, making vigorous efforts to utilize Western knowledge and technology to modernize the state. But these efforts led to fiscal bankruptcy and thus to the establishment of an international commission made up of British, French, and Italian representatives to supervise Tunisian finances. Continued rivalry between French and Italian interests culminated in a French invasion of Tunisia in May 1881. A protectorate was created in that year by the Treaty of Bardo; the Convention of La Marsa (1883) allowed the Tunisian dynasty to continue, although effective direction of affairs passed to the French. French interests invested heavily in Tunisia, and a process of modernization was vigorously pursued; at the same time, direct administration in the name of the dynasty was gradually expanded. The Tunisians, in turn, supported France in World War I.
The beginnings of modern nationalism in Tunisia emerged before the outbreak of the war, with hopes of greater Tunisian participation in government encouraged during the war by pronouncements such as the Fourteen Points (1918) of Woodrow Wilson. When these hopes were not realized, Tunisians formed a moderate nationalist grouping, the Destour ("Constitutional") Party. Dissatisfaction over the group's poor organization led, in 1934, to a split: the more active members, led by Habib Bourguiba, founded the Neo-Destour Party. France responded to demands for internal autonomy with repression, including the deposition and exile of the sovereign Munsif Bey. On 23 August 1945, the two Destour parties proclaimed that the will of the Tunisian people was independence. But the French still held firm. In December 1951, they again rejected a request by the Tunisian government for internal autonomy. The situation worsened when extremists among the French colonists launched a wave of terrorism. Finally, on 31 July 1954, French Premier Pierre Mendès-France promised the bey internal autonomy. After long negotiations accompanied by considerable local disorder, a French-Tunisian convention was signed on 3 June 1955 in Paris. On 20 March 1956, France recognized Tunisian independence.
In April 1956, Habib Bourguiba formed the first government of independent Tunisia, and on 25 July 1957, the Constituent Assembly, having established a republic and transformed itself into a legislative assembly, elected Bourguiba chief of state and deposed the bey. A new constitution came into effect on 1 June 1959. Bourguiba won the first presidential election in 1959 and was reelected in 1964, 1969, and 1974, when the National Assembly amended the constitution to make him president for life.
Economic malaise and political repression during the late 1970s led to student and labor unrest. A general strike called by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) on 26 January 1978, in order to protest assaults on union offices and the harassment of labor leaders, brought confrontations with government troops in which at least 50 demonstrators and looters were killed and 200 trade union officials, including UGTT Secretary-General Habib Achour, were arrested. Prime Minister Hedi Nouira was succeeded by Mohamed Mzali in April 1980, marking the advent of a political liberalization. Trade union leaders were released from jails, and Achour ultimately received a full presidential pardon. In July 1981, the formation of opposition political parties was permitted. In elections that November, candidates of Bourguiba's ruling Destourian Socialist Party, aligned in a National Front with the UGTT, garnered all 136 National Assembly seats and 94.6% of the popular vote. An economic slump in 1982–83 brought a renewal of tensions; in January 1984, after five days of rioting in Tunis, the government was forced to rescind the doubling of bread prices that had been ordered as an austerity measure.
After independence, Tunisia pursued a nonaligned course in foreign affairs while maintaining close economic ties with the West. Tunisia's relations with Algeria, strained during the 1970s, improved markedly during the early 1980s, and on 19 March 1983 the two nations signed a 20-year treaty of peace and friendship. Relations with Libya have been stormy since the stillborn Treaty of Jerba (1974), a hastily drafted document that had been intended to merge the two countries into the Islamic Arab Republic; within weeks after signing the accord, Bourguiba, under pressure from Algeria and from members of his own government, retreated to a more gradualist approach toward Arab unity. A further irritant was the territorial dispute between Libya and Tunisia over partition of the oil-rich Gulf of Gabes, resolved by the international Court of Justice in Libya's favor in 1982. Tunisian-Libyan relations reached a low point in January 1980, when some 30 commandos (entering from Algeria but apparently aided by Libya) briefly seized an army barracks and other buildings at Gafsa in an abortive attempt to inspire a popular uprising against Bourguiba. In 1981, Libya vetoed Tunisia's bid to join OAPEC and expelled several thousand Tunisian workers; more Tunisian workers were expelled in 1985.
Following the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon in August 1982, Tunisia admitted PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and nearly 1,000 Palestinian fighters. An October 1985 Israeli bombing raid on the PLO headquarters near Tunis killed about 70 persons. By 1987, the PLO presence was down to about 200, all civilians.
In 1986 and 1987, Bourguiba dealt with labor agitation for wage increases by again jailing UGTT leader Achour and disbanding the confederation. He turned on many of his former political associates, including his wife and son, while blocking two legal opposition parties from taking part in elections. Reasserting his control of Tunisian politics, Bourguiba dismissed Prime Minister Mzali, who fled to Algeria and denounced the regime. A massive roundup of Islamic fundamentalists in 1987 was the president's answer to what he termed a terrorist conspiracy sponsored by Iran, and diplomatic relations with Tehran were broken. On 27 September 1987, a state security court found 76 defendants guilty of plotting against the government and planting bombs; seven (five in absentia) were sentenced to death.
The trusted minister of interior, who had conducted the crackdown, General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was named prime minister in September 1987. Six weeks later, Ben Ali seized power, ousting Bourguiba, whom he said was too ill and senile to govern any longer. He assumed the presidency himself, promising political liberalization. Almost 2,500 political prisoners were released and the special state security courts were abolished. The following year, Tunisia's constitution was revised, ending the presidency for life and permitting the chief executive three, five-year terms. Elections were advanced from 1991 to 1989 and Ben Ali ran unopposed. Candidates of the renamed Destour Party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), won all of the 141 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, although the Islamist Party, an-Nahda, won an average of 18% of the vote where its members contested as independents.
The Constitution does not permit political parties based on religion, race, regional or linguistic affiliation, and thus Islamist parties in Tunisia face an uphill battle in gaining official recognition. After an attack on RCD headquarters in 1990, the government moved decisively against its Islamist opposition. Thousands were arrested and in 1992 military trials, 265 were convicted.
In the March 1994 presidential election, two men not Islamist-affiliated, after announcing their candidacy for the presidency, were arrested and Ben Ali again was unopposed and was reelected with 99.9% of the vote. In the new electoral system established for the 1994 Chamber of Deputies elections, the number of seats had been increased from 144 to 163. In the new proportional system, 144 of the seats were to be contested and to go to the majority party and the remaining 19 to be distributed to the remaining contesting parties according to their vote draw at the national level. In the parliamentary elections the president's RCD took all 144 seats with the remaining six parties dividing up the 19 set-aside seats. In the 1995 municipal elections, out of 4,090 seats contested in the 257 constituencies, independent candidates and members of the five recognized political parties won only six of the seats.
In July 1998 Ben Ali announced his plans to contest the presidential elections scheduled for October 1999. Two other candidates, Mohamed Belhaj Amor of the PUP and Abderrahmane Tlili of the UDU also announced their candidacy. The parliament had again been enlarged to 182 members, with 34 seats guaranteed to the opposition. In the 1999 elections Ben Ali received 99.4% of the votes, with Amor receiving 0.3% and Tlili 0.2%. The RCD was awarded with 148 seats and the five other official parties splitting the remaining 34 seats.
In the 1990s Tunisia continued to follow a moderate, nonaligned course in foreign relations, complicated by sporadic difficulties with its immediate neighbors. Relations with Libya remained tense after ties were resumed in 1987. However, Ben Ali pursued normalized relations, which dramatically improved over the next few years. Thousands of Tunisians found work in Libya as the border was reopened. In 1992 the UN Security Council imposed sanctions against Libya due to its decision to not hand over for trial suspects in the Pan Am bombing affair. Tunisia did not wholeheartedly support all of the UN Security Council sanctions due to the real economic ties that the two countries have. Due to these ties Libya's difficulties impacted on the ability of Tunisia and the UAM (see below) to establish closer relations with the European Union. From 1995 forward, Tunisia lobbied at the international level for the cessation of the sanctions due to the suffering that was caused to the Libyan people as well as to the regional tensions that the sanctions were creating. By 1997 Tunisia had quietly resumed joint economic projects and bilateral visitation with Libya. Following Libya's 1998/99 decision to hand over the Pan Am bombing suspects for trial in the Netherlands for the 1988 Pam Am explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland, Tunisia has moved to normalize relations with Libya, including resumption of TunisAir flights to Tripoli in June 2000.
Ben Ali also appeared committed to the promotion of the Union of the Arab Maghreb, an organization that became formalized in 1989 with Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Ben Ali became president of the organization for 1993, though at this point the active work toward unification of the five countries was put on hold due in particular to the internal difficulties that Algeria faced as well as the problems of Libya in the international community caused by Libya's refusal to turn over the Lockerbie suspects. In 1999 the leaders of Morocco and Tunisia again called for a resuscitation of the organization and pledged to work toward that end in the following year.
Tunisia's relations with Algeria in the 1990s have been controlled by the Islamist issue. The leadership of Tunisia's notofficially recognized ah-Nahda party continues to be closely watched by both countries. With the decision of the Algerian military to annul their January 1992 elections in order to prevent the Islamists from gaining control of the government, relations improved between the two countries. Algeria signed a border agreement in 1993 with Tunisia, ratified during a state visit of the Algerian leader. Reciprocal visits between the leadership of the two countries reinforced their commitment to controlling their joint border and fighting "extremism."
In 1988 'Abu Jihad, the military commander of the PLO, was assassinated near Tunis by Israeli commandos, provoking a Tunisian protest to the United Nations Security Council and a following resolution of condemnation of the Israeli aggression by the Council. However, relations with Israel then improved, and in 1993, Tunisia welcomed an official Israeli delegation as part of the peace process. Joint naval exercises between the two countries took place in March 1994. The PLO offices in Tunis were closed in 1994 as the new Palestinian Authority (PA) took up residence in Gaza. In 1996, following PA elections, Tunisia moved to establish low-level diplomatic relations with Israel as it also announced its decision to recognize PA passports. However, with the slowing of the peace process and the election of the Netanyahu government in Israel, improving relations between Israel and Tunisia cooled and remained on hold.
Ben Ali also moved to normalize relations with Egypt and visited Cairo in 1990 to that end, the first such trip by a Tunisian President since 1965. In 1997 several agreements regarding economic and cultural cooperation were signed between the two countries.
Although the United States has provided economic and military aid, Tunisia opposed American support for Kuwait following Iraq's invasion in 1990. The support of Iraq in this crisis caused a rift in relations with Kuwait that were finally healed, through Ben Ali's efforts, with the visit of Kuwait's Crown Prince to Tunis in 1996 and a loan from the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development being granted to Tunisia. At the same time, Tunisia continued good relations with Iraq and continued to call for a cessation of UN sanctions against Baghdad.
The consistent stance of Ben Ali's government toward Islamist parties has brought him friends in the west, though his own poor human rights record has provoked consternation from western governments and vocal criticism from western media and human rights organizations. Complaints against his regime have included torture under interrogation, deaths in custody, secret or unfair trials and long prison sentences for opposition leaders, inhumane prison conditions and restrictions on free speech and the press, including even controls on the use of satellite dishes. Ironically, the UN Committee against Torture (along with numerous other human rights groups and including the Arab Commission of Human Rights) denounced the police and security forces in Tunisia, while Tunisia was unanimously elected to the UN Human Rights Commission in 1997.
In July 1995, Tunisia signed an association agreement with the European Union that in 2007 would make the country part of a free-trade area around the Mediterranean known as the European Economic Area, the first southern Mediterranean country to be brought in to the planned association. The United States has continued to offer praise to Tunisia and encouragement of US investment, but has held off on requested military aid. Relations with Italy, Tunisia's second largest trading partner after France, have been complicated by the issues of illegal immigration from Tunisia and of fishing rights.
On 6 April 2000, Bourguiba died at age 96. A 7-day period of mourning was declared, and thousands of mourners lined his funeral procession route.
Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the United States called upon all states to implement counterterrorism measures. On 11 April 2002, a truck exploded at a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, killing 21 people, including 14 German tourists. German intelligence officials reported the bombing was a terrorist attack, and cited links to the al-Qaeda organization. In November, Ben Ali called for an international conference on terrorism to establish an international code of ethics to which all parties would be committed. In December, the United States praised Tunisia for its efforts in combating terrorism, and for its "record of moderation and of tolerance in the region."
In a referendum held on 26 May 2002, voters overwhelmingly approved a series of constitutional amendments that would make a marked change in the country's political structure. They included: additional guarantees regarding the pre-trial and preventive custody of defendants; the creation of a second legislative body; the elimination of presidential term limits, along with the setting of a maximum age ceiling of 75 years for a presidential candidate; and the consecration of the importance of human rights, solidarity, mutual help, and tolerance as values enshrined in the constitution.
In November 2002, Ben Ali announced a series of electoral reform measures, which, in addition to the "Chamber of Councilors" approved by the May referendum, included provisions to further guarantee the fairness of voter registration and election processes, and provisions to reduce the minimum requirement for campaign financing and reimbursement by the state. He also called on radio and television operators to provide wider coverage of opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations, and introduced a bill that would guarantee citizens' privacy and protection of personal data. The next presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for 2004.
In a speech presented at a summit of the Non-Aligned movement in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in February 2003, Ben Ali reiterated his call for an international conference on terrorism, and called for a peaceful solution to the crisis in Iraq. By March 2003, the UN Security Council was considering whether or not it would sanction the use of force in providing for Iraq's disarmament of weapons of mass destruction called for in its Resolution 1441 passed 8 November 2002, and the United States and UK had stationed nearly 300,000 military personnel in the Persian Gulf region.