At the beginning of known recorded
history, Tunisia was inhabited by Berber tribes. Its coast was settled by
Phoenicians starting as early as the 10th century B.C. The city of Carthage was
founded in the 9th century B.C. by settlers from Tyre, now in modern day
Lebanon. Legend says, that Dido founded the city in 814 B.C., as retold in by
the Greek writer Timaeus of Tauromenium. The settlers of Carthage brought their
culture and religion from the Phoenicians and other Canaanites.
After a series of wars with Greek city-states of Sicily in the 5th century BC, Carthage rose to power and eventually became the dominant civilization in the Western Mediterranean. The people of Carthage worshipped a pantheon of Middle Eastern gods including Baal and Tanit. Tanit's symbol, a simple female figure with extended arms and long dress, is a popular icon found in ancient sites. The founders of Carthage also established a Tophet which was altered in Roman times.
The Roman Period
Though the Romans referred to the new empire growing in the city of Carthage as Punic or Phoenician, the empire built around Carthage was an independent political entity from the other Phoenician settlements in the Western Mediterranean.
A Carthaginian invasion of Italy led by Hannibal during the Second Punic War, one of a series of wars with Rome, nearly crippled the rise of the Roman Empire. Carthage was eventually conquered by Rome in the 2nd century BC, a turning point which led to ancient Mediterranean civilization having been influenced mainly by European instead of African cultures.
After the Roman conquest, the region became one of the granaries of Rome, and was Latinized and Christianized. The Romans controlled nearly all of modern Tunisia, unlike other modern African countries, of which Rome only held the northern coast. It was conquered by the Vandals in the 5th century AD and reconquered by the commander Belisarius in the 6th century during the rule of Byzantine emperor Justinian.
The Arabo-Muslim Period
Around the beginning of the 8th century the region was conquered by Arab Muslims, who founded the city of Kairouan which became the first city of Islam in North Africa. Tunisia flourished under Arab rule. Extensive irrigation installations were constructed to supply towns with water and promote agriculture (especially olive production) . This prosperity permitted luxurious court life and was marked by the construction of new Palace cities such as al-Abassiya (809) and Raqadda (877) .
Successive Muslim dynasties ruled Tunisia (Ifriqiya at the time) with occasional instabilities caused mainly by Berber rebellions; of these reigns we can cite the Aghlabids (800-900) and Fatimids (909-972). After conquering Cairo, Fatimids abandoned North Africa to the local Zirids (Tunisia and parts of Eastern Algeria, 972-1148) and Hammadid (Central and eastern Algeria, 1015-1152) . North Africa was submerged by their quarrels; political instability was connected to the decline of Tunisian trade and agriculture . In addition the invasion of Tunisia by Banu Hilal, a warlike Arab Bedouin tribes encouraged by Fatimids of Egypt to seize North Africa, sent the region's urban and economic life into further decline . The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun wrote that the lands ravaged by Banu Hilal invaders had become completely arid desert.
The coasts were held briefly by the Normans of Sicily in the 12th century and the following Arab reconquest made the last Christians in Tunisia disappear. In 1159, Tunisia was conquered by the Almohad caliphs. They were succeeded by the Berber Hafsids (c.1230– 1574), under whom Tunisia prospered. In the late 16th century the coast became a pirate stronghold (see: Barbary States).
The Ottoman Rule
In the last years of the Hafsids, Spain seized many of the coastal cities, but these were recovered by the Ottoman Empire. Under its Turkish governors, the Beys, Tunisia attained virtual independence. The Hussein dynasty of Beys, established in 1705, lasted until 1957. From 1881 - 1956 the country was under French colonization. European settlements in the country were actively encouraged; the number of French colonists grew from 34,000 in 1906 to 144,000 in 1945. In 1910 there were 105,000 Italians in Tunisia.
World War II
In 1942– 1943, Tunisia was the scene of the first major operations by the Allied Forces (the British Empire and the United States) against the Axis Powers (Italy and Germany) during World War II. The main body of the British army, advancing from their victory in Battle of el-Alamein under the command of British Field Marshal Montgomery, pushed into Tunisia from the south. The US and other allies, following their invasions of Algeria and Morocco in Operation Torch, invaded from the west.
General Rommel, commander of the Axis forces in North Africa, had hoped to inflict a similar defeat on the allies in Tunisia as German forces did in the Battle of France in 1940. Before the battle for el-Alamein, the allied forces had been forced to retreat toward Egypt. As such the battle for Tunisia was a major test for the allies. They figured out that in order to defeat Axis forces they would have to coordinate their actions and quickly recover from the inevitable setbacks the German-Italian forces would inflict.
On February 19, 1943, General Rommel launched an attack on the American forces in the Kasserine Pass region of Western Tunisia, hoping to inflict the kind of demoralizing and alliance-shattering defeat the Germans had dealt to Poland and France. The initial results were a disaster for the United States; the area around the Kasserine Pass is the site of many US war graves from that time.
However, the American forces were ultimately able to reverse their retreat. Having known a critical strategy in tank warfare, the Allies broke through the Mareth line on March 20, 1943. The allies subsequently linked up on April 8 and on May 2, 1943 the German-Italian Army in Tunisia surrendered. Thus, the United States, United Kingdom, Free French, and Polish (as well as other forces) were able to win a major battle as an allied army.
The battle, though often overshadowed by Stalingrad, represented a major allied victory of World War II largely because it forged the Alliance which would one day liberate Western Europe.
Tunisia is a procedural democracy. On paper it is a republican presidential system characterized by a bicameral parliamentary system, including the Chamber of Representatives and the Chamber of Advisors. Authoritarian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, previously a military figure, has been in office since 1987, the year he acceded to the executive office of Habib Bourguiba after a team of medical experts judged Bourguiba unfit to exercise the functions of the office. Prior to that moment Ben Ali was Bourguiba's minister. The day of the succession, 7th of November, is celebrated by the state as national holiday, with many public building's and even the national currency and the only private airline and TV station (both owned by the family of the President's wife) carrying the '7 November' logo.
In Tunisia, the President is re-elected with enormous majorities every 5-year terms. He appoints a Prime Minister and cabinet, who play a minor role in the execution of policy. Regional governors and local administrators are also appointed by the central government. Largely consultative mayors and municipal councils are elected with most seats going to the President's party. There is a bicameral legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies, which has 182 seats, 20% of which are reserved for opposition parties and the Chamber of Advisors which is composed of representatives of political parties, professional organisations patronised by the President and by personalities appointed by the president of the Republic. Both chambers are composed of more than 20% women, making it one of the rare countries in the Arab world where women enjoy equal rights. Incidentally, it is also the only country in the Arab world where polygamy is forbidden by law. This is part of a provision in the country’s Code of Personal Status which was introduced by the former president Bourguiba in 1956.
The judiciary is not independent in constitutional matters and often corrupt in civil cases. The military does not play an obvious role in politics letting the ex-army man President run the country. Hundreds of thousands of young men avoid compulsory conscription and live with the constant fear of arrest although it appears that the police only go after them in certain times of the year only (the 'raffle') and often let them go if a sufficient bribe is paid.
The regime repeatedly passes laws that make it appear democratic to outsiders. Since 1987, Tunisia has reformed its political system several times. It has formally abolished life presidency and opened up the parliament to opposition parties. In reality, however, all power is monopolized formally by the President and his party - which incidentally is housed in Tunis's tallest tower - and informally by influential families such as the all powerful Trabelsis from the President's wife's side, Leila, a former coiffeuse. Recently Tunisia refused a French request for the extradition of two of the President's nephews, from Leila's side, who are accused by the French State prosecutor of having stolen two mega-yachts from a French marina
The President's party, known as the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) in French, is composed of about 2 million members and more than 6000 representations throughout the country and is largely overlapping with all important state institutions. Although the party was renamed (in Bourguiba’s days it used to be known as the Socialist Destourian Party), its policies are still considered to be largely secular. There are currently eight other small 'political parties' in Tunisia, six of whom are represented in Parliament giving a semblance of legitimacy. Since 2007, all political parties represented in parliament benefit from state subsidies to cover the rising cost of paper and to expand their publication. In July 2008, new constitutional provisions have been voted by the country’s 'parliament'.
In reality no-one ever has ever openly launched criticism of the regime and all protest is severely suppressed and does not get reported in the media. Self-censorship is widespread with people fearing the police which is present everywhere and frequently stops and searches individuals and vehicles - often demanding small amounts of bribe money to make up for their meagre salaries. Daily newspapers run eulogistic articles praising the President whose picture graces the first page on a daily basis. Large pictures of President Ben Ali and 'spontaneously' erected banners praising him are found on all public buildings and majors streets.
The internet is severely restricted, including sites like YouTube. Nevertheless the internet has witnessed a considerable development with more than 1.1 million users and hundreds of internet cafes, known as ‘publinet.’ This is primarily related to the widespread unemployment and lack of democracy and opportunities resulting in millions of bored unemployed graduates. Independent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have documented that rights are not respected.
2009 National Elections
On October 25, 2009, national elections were held in Tunisia. The election consisted of a presidential one and a parliamentary one. The sitting president Zinedine Ben Ali won a landslide victory, with 89.62%. His main opponent, Mohamed Bouchiha, received 5.01%. The president's party, the CDR, also got the majority of votes for the parliamentary election, 84.59%. The Movement of Socialist Democrats party received 4.63%.
The election received criticism from both internal and foreign media. Human Rights Watch has reported that parties and candidates were denied exposure equal to the sitting president, and that the Ettajdid partys weekly publication, Ettarik al-Jadid, was seized by authorities.
The four presidential candidates in the 2009 presidential election were the following:
Percentage of votes (%)
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (RCD)
Mohamed Bouchiha (PPU)
Ahmed Linoubli (UDU)
Ahmed Ibrahim (ME)
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