Destinations > Africa > Tunisia

Tunisia History

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PEOPLE AND 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. Recorded history in Tunisia begins with the arrival of Phoenicians, who founded Carthage and other North African settlements in the 8th century B.C. Carthage became a major sea power, clashing with Rome for control of the Mediterranean until it was defeated and captured by the Romans in 146 B.C. 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. 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 became a center of Arab culture and learning and was assimilated into the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. It was a French protectorate from 1881 until independence in 1956, and retains close political, economic, and cultural ties with France.

Nearly all Tunisians (99% of the population) are Muslim. There has been a Jewish population on the southern island of Djerba for 2,000 years, and there remains a small Jewish population in Tunis and other cities, which is mainly descended from those who fled Spain in the late 15th century. A small Christian community is dispersed throughout the country, and includes foreign residents, as well as a few hundred native-born citizens who have converted to Christianity. Small nomadic indigenous minorities have been mostly assimilated into the larger population.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS

Tunisia is a republic with a strong presidential system dominated by a single political party. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been in office since 1987, when he deposed Habib Bourguiba, president since Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. The ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), was the sole legal party for 25 years--including when it was known as the Socialist Destourian Party (PSD)--and still dominates political life. The president is elected to 5-year terms--with virtually no opposition--and appoints a prime minister and cabinet, who play a strong 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. There is a bicameral legislative body. The Chamber of Deputies has 189 seats, 20% of which are designated to be held by the opposition. By order of President Ben Ali, the share of opposition seats will increase to 25% in October 2009. The Chamber of Deputies plays a limited role as an arena for debate on national policy but never originates legislation and virtually always passes bills presented by the executive with only minor changes. A referendum in May 2002 created a second chamber, the Chamber of Advisors. First-time elections for the Chamber of Advisors were held in July 2005. Half of these members were re-elected in August 2008. The judiciary is nominally independent, but responds to executive direction, especially in politically sensitive cases. The military is professional and does not play a role in politics.

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, policies that continued under the Ben Ali administration. The result was strong social progress--high literacy and school attendance rates, low population growth rates, and relatively low poverty rates--and generally steady economic growth. These pragmatic policies have contributed to social and political stability.

Progress toward full democracy has been slow. Over the years, President Bourguiba stood unopposed for re-election several times and was named "President for Life" in 1974 by a constitutional amendment. At the time of independence, the Neo-Destourian Party (later the PSD)--enjoying broad support because of its role at the forefront of the independence movement--became the sole legal party. Opposition parties were banned until 1981.

When President Ben Ali came to power in 1987, he promised greater democratic openness and respect for human rights, signing a "national pact" with opposition parties, including the unauthorized Islamic An-Nahdha party. He oversaw constitutional and legal changes, including abolishing the concept of president for life, the establishment of presidential term limits, and provision for greater opposition party participation in political life. But the ruling party, renamed the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), continued to dominate the political scene. Ben Ali ran for re-election unopposed in 1989 and 1994. In the multiparty era, he won 99.44% of the vote in 1999 and 94.49% of the vote in 2004. In both elections he faced weak opponents. The RCD won all seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 1989, and won all of the directly elected seats in the 1994, 1999, and 2004 elections. However, constitutional amendments provided for the distribution of additional seats to the opposition parties by 1999 and 2004. Currently, five opposition parties share 37 of the 189 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben Ali that allowed him to run for a fourth term in 2004 (and a fifth, his final, because of age limits on presidential candidates, in 2009), and provided judicial immunity during and after his presidency. The referendum also created a second parliamentary chamber, the Chamber of Advisors, and provided for other changes. On July 28, 2008 President Ben Ali approved a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18.

There are currently eight legal opposition parties, the Social Democratic Movement (MDS), the Popular Unity Party (PUP), the Union of Democratic Unionists (UDU), At-Tajdid (also called the Renewal Movement), the Liberal Social Party (PSL), and the Green Party for Progress (PVP), plus the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (FDTL), the only two not represented in the Chamber of Deputies. The parties are generally weak and divided and face considerable restrictions on their ability to organize. The Islamist opposition party, An-Nahdha, was allowed to operate openly in the late 1980s and early 1990s despite a ban on religiously based parties. The government outlawed An-Nahdha as a terrorist organization in 1991 and arrested its leaders and thousands of party members and sympathizers, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the president. The party is no longer openly active in Tunisia, and its leaders operate from exile in London. Several activists have been denied permission to establish other opposition political parties.

While there are thousands of official, established non-governmental organizations, civil society remains weak. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), the first human rights organization in Africa and the Arab world, operates under restrictions and suffers from internal divisions. Some independent organizations, such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), the Tunisian Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development, and the Bar Association also are active. The government has denied legal status to a handful of other human rights advocacy groups who, nonetheless, attempt to organize and publicize information on the human rights situation in the country.

Despite the Government of Tunisia's stated commitment to making progress toward a democratic system, citizens do not enjoy political freedom. The government imposes restrictions on freedom of association and speech and does not allow a free press. Many critics have called for clearer, effective distinctions between executive, legislative, and judicial powers. Foreign media, including foreign-based satellite television channels, have criticized the Tunisian Government for the lack of press freedom. Tunisia ranked number 143 out of 173 countries in the 2008 Reporters Without Borders list of World Press Freedom rankings. As reflected in the State Department's annual human rights report, there are frequent reports of torture and abuse of prisoners, especially political prisoners.

Trade unions have played a key role in Tunisia's history since the struggle for independence, when the 1952 assassination of labor leader Farhat Hached was a catalyst for the final push against French domination. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the country's sole labor confederation, has generally focused on bread-and-butter issues, but at some critical moments in Tunisia's history has played a decisive role in the nation's political life. Despite a drop in union membership from 400,000 to about 250,000 as the structure of the Tunisian economy changed, the UGTT continues to hold a prominent place in Tunisia's political and social life, and negotiates with government and the umbrella employer group on wages and benefits. The current leadership under Abdessalem Jerad was elected at the 21st UGTT Congress held in December 2006. In January 2008, Tunisian journalists created a union, the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT). Neji B’ghouri, who billed himself as an independent, was elected its first president. The International Federation of Journalists had suspended the AJT's membership from 2004-2007 for failing to defend freedom of the press. The new union promised to defend the rights of journalists and promote freedom of expression.

Tunisia is a leader in the Arab world in promoting the legal and social status of women. A Personal Status Code was adopted shortly after independence in 1956, which, among other things, gave women full legal status (allowing them to run and own businesses, have bank accounts, and seek passports under their own authority). It also, for the first time in the Arab world, outlawed polygamy. The government required parents to send girls to school, and today more than 50% of university students are women and 66% of judges and lawyers are women. Rights of women and children were further enhanced by 1993 reforms, which included a provision to allow Tunisian women to transmit citizenship even if they are married to a foreigner and living abroad. The government has supported a remarkably successful family planning program that has reduced the population growth rate to just over 1% per annum, contributing to Tunisia's economic and social stability.

Tunisia's judiciary is headed by the Court of Cassation, whose head is appointed by the minister of justice and human rights. The country is divided administratively into 24 governorates. The president appoints all governors.


Information by U.S. Department of State




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