During the Middle Paleolithic period, Tunisia was
embraced by the Aterian culture (see the Aterian), whose
preserved artifacts are dominated by chip tools and
arrowheads with tongs. About 14,000 BC appeared the
so-called iberomaurusian culture, which at the end of the
ice age about 10,000 BC was replaced by the capsien culture,
characterized by chip implements, geometric microliths, bone
artifacts and decorated ostrich eggs. From about 5000 BC
hunting and gathering were gradually replaced by agriculture
and livestock management.
Through the construction of Utica, Carthage and other
Phoenician colonies in the 8th and 7th centuries BC
(possibly even earlier) the coastal country was drawn into
the eastern Mediterranean cultural sphere. Carthage
gradually came to dominate all of present-day Tunisia except
in the south, where Berber tribes maintained their freedom.
After the destruction of Carthage 146 BC the region, now the
province of Africa, became one of the leading grain
producers of the Roman Empire. The economic boom is
reflected in extensive urban development and a rich cultural
life that came to an end only with the conquest of the
vandals 429 AD. Tunisia was taken back by the Byzantines in
533. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Tunisia.
Islamization and Arabization (from about 650)
In the middle of the 600s, the area was reached by Arab
expansion, and in 670 the city of Kairouan with its powerful
mosque in the middle of Tunisia was founded by an Arab
general, sent by the rulers of Egypt. Carthage was conquered
in 697, but Kairouan became the provincial capital until the
mid-1000s. The country's political and administrative center
was restored in 1160 in Tunis on the Mediterranean coast in
the northeast, close to old Carthage. Since then, Tunis has
been a capital city.
The Arab conquest did not entail large population
movements, but culturally and politically it became a
crucial turning point in the history of Tunisia and all of
North Africa. Christianity and Roman heritage were forced
back. Islam spread, as did the Arabic language. Islamization
became quite complete all the way to Morocco. Over time, a
specific Tunisian identity has taken shape. It is based both
on the heritage of the original residents, the Berber, and
later influences, mainly the Arab. From 1160, Tunisia was
first ruled as a province under the Caliphate of Morocco. In
1228, the Caliph's deputy in Tunisia succeeded in
establishing an independent kingdom, which survived until
1574. Tunis was then a cultural center, where historian Ibn
Khaldun, among others, grew up, and the country participated
in international trade around the Mediterranean.
The Ottoman period (1574–1881)
In 1574 Tunisia came under the Ottoman Empire but in
practice functioned as a fairly independent state, with
domestic political autonomy and foreign policy protection
through the Turkish empire. In 1705, the first king (bey)
of the Hushanitic dynasty came to power, formally as a
Turkish governor. Beyer of this genus continued to sit on
the throne, under Turkish and French supremacy, until 1957
Thus, towards the end of the 19th century, Tunisia had a
very long tradition of consolidated state power behind it.
But the country did not have enough internal dynamics and
cohesion to develop society and economy of its own accord
and at the same time to resist the pressure of expansive
Europe. Admittedly, several Tunisian governments had made
ambitious efforts to modernize the educational system,
economy and military power, especially under bey Ahmad
(1837–55) and Finance Minister Khayr ad-Din (1873–77).
Significant progress had been made, but the effort required
funding. Tax collections aroused internal contradictions,
even open revolt in the countryside (1864). Seemingly
generous foreign loans led to heavy indebtedness and
vulnerability to demands from the European powers,
French Protectorate (1881–1956)
The protectorate as a form meant that Tunisia retained
its state-law identity, but the supreme power in the country
became French. Beyen and the government were directly
controlled by the French general resident of Tunis. Local
administrations were also placed under French directors.
Initially, government finances were stabilized under the
conditions of France, and a foundation was laid for economic
modernization, including through rail construction. The
country was not colonized in the same massive way as
neighboring Algeria, but large parts of the most fertile
land and leading positions in the economy were taken over by
Europeans. It was mainly French and Italians who immigrated
to Tunisia. In the 1950s, over 200,000 Europeans lived in
the country on privileged terms, nearly half of Italian
The alien power reinforced the nationalist trends from
the end of the 19th century. The group "The Young Tunisians"
formed a political party in 1907 with demands for better
education and more power in politics and economics for the
Tunisians themselves. Their body became the magazine Le
Tunisia, which soon also appeared in an Arabic-language
version. After the First World War, the Destour Party was
formed, whose main demands were equal rights for Tunisians
and Europeans. French repression made operations more
difficult, but in 1934 the young lawyer Habib Bourguiba took
the lead of the Néo-Destour outbreak group. The most
important difference to before was that the new party
actively turned to the people's broad stock in the quest to
mobilize political support. During the 1930s and 1940s, the
reform demands were radicalized in the direction of autonomy
and independence for Tunisia.
When the People's Front government came to power in
France in 1936, the space was temporarily expanded for
Bourguiba and Néo-Destour. But soon the repression tightened
again. The party was banned and the leaders imprisoned.
During World War II, Tunisia was occupied by Germany and
Italy, which unsuccessfully tried to lure Bourguiba to its
side. Following the Allied victory in 1945, a period of
sharp contradictions followed between the French colonial
power and the Tunisian independence movement.
France agreed to independence in 1956, first for Morocco
and then for Tunisia. On March 20, an agreement was reached
with Tunisia, and Bourguiba became prime minister. On July
25, 1957, he became president after the abolition of the
A number of tasks were needed during the first year of
independence. Administration and legal apparatus were taken
over from the French. The teaching system was expanded.
Women and men were given the same civil rights. A new basis
was adopted. However, the economy stagnated, and foreign
capital fled the country. In early 1961, the president
appointed union leader Ahmad Ben Salah as planning minister
with the task of pursuing a more state-directed development
policy. The party changed its name to the Socialist Destour
Party in 1964. The more radical line aroused resistance, and
Ben Salah was deposed in 1969 and sentenced to prison in
1970. The economy was liberalized with some stabilization as
a result. The regime was also dominated by the president and
the only political party.
In the 1981 elections, there was room for opposition
parties, but the government still took all seats in
parliament. The opposition boycotted the elections in 1986.
In 1987, President Bourguiba was declared senile and
dismissed. His successor was Zayn al-Abidin Ben Ali, who won
the clear victory in the 1994 presidential election.
Despite the development strategic conflict in the 1960s
and the opposition to the authoritarian political system,
Ben Alis Tunisia was characterized by stability compared to
other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. In
foreign policy, the attitude was cautious. From 1982 up to
the 1993 Oslo agreement, PLO had its headquarters in Tunis.
Culturally, the country was long considered liberal, but
under pressure from internal Islamic opposition and events
in the outside world, not least in neighboring Algeria, the
political regime hardened considerably during the 1990s.
Tunisia regularly received criticism from the outside
world for lack of respect for human rights. In the early
2000s, the threat of armed Islamists also increased. The
terrorist network al-Qaeda claims to have been behind an
explosive attack in 2002 on the island of Jarba, when 21
people were killed, including 14 German tourists. In 2007
and 2008, security forces repeatedly met with people
designated as Islamists. A large number of people suspected
of terrorism were arrested.
Arab Spring and Democratization
The high unemployment and the toughening political
climate in December 2010 led to widespread regime hostile
protests, triggered by a young street vendor burned to death
in protest against police harassment (see further Arab
Spring). In January 2011, President Ben Ali and parts of his
family fled to Saudi Arabia. A provisional unity government
led by Ben Ali's Prime Minister took office but was
dissolved shortly afterwards due to continued protests and
demands for a complete break with the old regime. A new
interim government was set up pending general elections,
while political prisoners were released, exile politicians
returned and new parties formed.
Ben Ali's party RCD was dissolved by a court decision and
the president was prosecuted, investigated and convicted in
his absence on a number of points, including financial
crime, drug possession, theft of state property and
corruption. He was sentenced several times to long prison
In an election to a Constituent Assembly in October 2011,
the previously banned Islamist party, Ennahda, won.
Its leader Hamadi Jebali (born 1949) formed an
Islamist-dominated coalition government and human rights
activist Moncef Marzouki (born 1945), leader of the second
largest party Congrès pour la République (CPR), was
elected by the Constituent Assembly as interim president.
The work of writing a new constitution began in February
2012 and this could be approved in January 2014. However,
the road there was lined with problems, and Ennahda tried to
balance demands from both secular and Islamic forces.
Disappointment over government policy led to violent
demonstrations and radical Islamist Salafism has grown
stronger. After two political murders in 2013, fighting
broke out between government forces and the group accused of
the murder Ansar al-Sharia. A decisive role for eventually
becoming a political solution to the conflicts is considered
to have played Tunisian quartet for national dialogue. This
forum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2015.
In October 2014, parliamentary elections were held in
which the 2012 secular party Nidaa Tounes ('Call
for Tunisia') became the largest party with Ennahda in
second place. In the presidential election held later in the
year, 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, who represented Nidaa
Tounes, prevailed. Essebsi died in 2019. In the presidential
election held in the fall of this year, the social
conservative independent candidate Kaïs Saïed, a lawyer with
constitutional law as a specialty, won.
Tunisia is alone among the countries that experienced
popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes during the
Arab Spring to have undergone a democratic transformation.
However, stability has been threatened, not least by the
terrorist attacks that were directed at the Bardo Museum in
Tunis in March 2015 when 23 people were killed, among them
20 foreign tourists.