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Tunisia - History

Modern Tunisians are the descendents of indigenous Berbers and of people from numerous civilizations that have invaded, migrated to, and been assimilated into the population over the millennia. Tunisia has a long and distinct history as a politically and culturally unified country despite subjection to a variety of rulers and the impulses of contrasting civilizations over a period of nearly 3,000 years. The modern state derives its name from Tunis, originally a Phoenician settlement and since the thirteenth century the country's capital and principal city. But to the Romans and later the Arabs, this relatively small region was known as Africa, whose name was eventually extended to the whole of the immense continent that lay beyond.

History-conscious Tunisians point to Carthage and Kairouan as the sources of their continuous development as a people and a nation. Recorded history in Tunisia begins with the arrival of Phoenicians, who founded Carthage and other North African settlements in the 8th century BC. Carthage became a major sea power, clashing with Rome for control of the Mediterranean. Carthage built an empire that dominated North Africa and the western Mediterranean until it fell before the might of Rome in 146 BC. Destroyed by its conquerors and then rebuilt as the administrative center of Roman Africa, the city of Carthage became in time the spiritual center of Latin Christianity in North Africa. The Romans ruled and settled in North Africa until the 5th century, when the Roman Empire fell and Tunisia was invaded by European tribes, including the Vandals.

Kairouan, founded in the seventh century AD by advancing Arab armies, is one of the holy cities of the Muslim world and the wellspring from which Arab culture flowed across North Africa. The Muslim conquest in the 7th century transformed Tunisia and the make-up of its population, with subsequent waves of migration from around the Arab and Ottoman world, including significant numbers of Spanish Muslims and Jews at the end of the 15th century.

Tunisia was once part of great medieval Berber empires. Tunisia became a center of Arab culture and learning and was assimilated into the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. It was an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire ruled by dynasties of Turkish beys.

Tunisia was occupied by France in 1881 and remained a French protectorate for 75 years, from 1881 until independence in 1956.The French impact on Tunisia was profound, imposing French institutions, leaving the imprint of French culture and technology, and creating a gallicized elite to whom leadership passed when the protectorate was ended in 1956. Tunisia retains close political, economic, and cultural ties with France.

Tunisia's independence from France in 1956 ended a protectorate established in 1881. President Bourguiba, who had been the leader of the independence movement, declared Tunisia a republic in 1957, ending the nominal rule of the Ottoman Beys. In June 1959, Tunisia adopted a constitution modeled on the French system, which established the basic outline of the highly centralized presidential system that continues today. The military was given a defined defensive role, which excluded participation in politics. Starting from independence, President Bourguiba placed strong emphasis on economic and social development, especially education, the status of women, and the creation of jobs.

The dominant factors of Tunisia's political life after indepedence were the power and personality of President Habib Bourguiba and the influence of the Destourian Socialist Party, which embodies his philosophy of government and society. Born in 1903 at Monastir in the Sahil region, Bourguiba - often referred to as the Supreme Combatant - was one of the longest surviving Third World nationalist leaders who guided their countries to independence in the post-World War II era. His strength derived from his great popularity as the founder and ideological mentor of the Destourian movement. After independence he used his prestige to institutionalize presidential dominance of the governmental system and to secure for the party supremacy over most aspects of national life. Many foreign observers regarded Bourguiba's Tunisia as a model for emerging nations attempting to build modern societies.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:03:10 ZULU