Tunisia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Tunisia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Tunisia, country on the north coast of Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The Atlas Mountains run across the country, dividing the country’s fertile northern plains from the hotter, dryer southern regions. The Sahara, the vast desert that covers much of northern Africa, begins in southern Tunisia.

Tunisia is a small country by North African standards, sandwiched between the much larger countries of Algeria to the west and Libya to the southeast. The northernmost country in Africa, Tunisia is bounded on the north and east by the Mediterranean. The country’s strategic location has brought it into contact with many civilizations that sought control of North Africa, including those of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks.

Tunisia was a colony of France from 1881 until it gained independence in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, considered the founder of modern Tunisia, led the country to independence and served as its president for 30 years. Since independence Tunisia has been an oasis of stability in North Africa. Islam is the state religion and nearly all Tunisians are Muslims, but the government has resisted efforts of Islamic fundamentalists to become a political force as they have done in neighboring Algeria and Libya.

Today, Tunisia is a popular tourist destination, noted for its sunny weather, splendid beaches, varied scenery, Saharan oases, and well-preserved ancient Roman sites. Tunis, a seaport on the eastern coast, is the capital and largest city.


Tunisia has a long coastline that extends about 1,150 km (about 710 mi) along the Mediterranean Sea. The coast is indented by many harbors and inlets. Tunisia’s largest cities are located along the eastern coast.

A narrow region of plains skirts Tunisia’s northern and eastern coasts. The Atlas Mountains lie behind the plains on the north, extending from Tunisia’s western border with Algeria to northeastern Tunisia. When the Atlas ranges reach the Mediterranean Sea, they form peninsulas, leaving bays between. Cape Bon is the most prominent of these peninsulas, and the Bay of Tunis north of it is a sheltered harbor.

Peaks in the Atlas range in elevation from about 600 to 1,500 m (about 2,000 to 5,000 ft). Fertile valleys and plains are interspersed among the mountains. Forests of evergreens and oaks blanket the mountain slopes. The country’s only major river, the Majardah, crosses the mountain zone from west to east and empties into the Gulf of Tunis.

To the south the mountains give way to a plateau. Coarse grass covers much of the plateau. The plateau slopes down to a basin that forms a depression across central Tunisia. Shallow salt lakes, known as shatts or chotts, fill this basin. Several of these lakes lie below sea level. The shatts adjoin the Sahara, which covers about two-fifths of the country’s total land area.

Climate in Tunisia

Northern Tunisia has a Mediterranean climate, with mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. At Tunis the average annual rainfall of 610 mm (24 in) occurs mostly between October and April. Temperatures in the north average 9°C (48°F) in January and 26°C (78°F) in July. Toward the south the climate becomes progressively hotter and drier. Annual rainfall is only about 200 mm (about 8 in) in the Sahara. But this is enough to support grass and shrubs for grazing sheep and goats.

Plant and Animal Life in Tunisia

The fertile, well-watered regions of the north are characterized by flourishing vineyards and by dense forests of cork oak, pine, and juniper trees. Oranges and other citrus fruits are grown in the northeast. To the south, olive trees become increasingly prominent. Farther south on the plateau, the semiarid conditions support a steppe vegetation dominated by wild grasses, notably esparto grass, and a wide variety of shrubs. In the arid regions of the extreme south, date palms flourish in oases.

Among the wildlife found in the country are hyena, wild boar, jackal, gazelle, and hare. Several varieties of poisonous snakes, including cobras and horned vipers, are also present.

Mineral Resources in Tunisia

Petroleum is Tunisia’s principal mineral resource. Reserves exist both offshore and on land, particularly in the south, and important new deposits were discovered in the early 1980s. Other mineral resources include natural gas, phosphates, iron ore, lead, and zinc.

Environmental Issues in Tunisia

Water is scarce in Tunisia, and drought is common. Population growth has led to increased demand for farmland. As agricultural production has increased, so have marginal land use and overgrazing, resulting in extensive soil erosion and desertification. Only a small portion of the country’s total land area is forested. The government has approved a tree-planting program to combat deforestation.

Tunisia does more to treat sewage than many of its neighbors, but untreated urban sewage is still a problem, contaminating water supplies and causing eutrophication (the growth of oxygen-depleting plant life) in Mediterranean waters. In rural areas, only about half the population had access to adequate sanitation by the late 1990s. In addition, toxic wastes from industrial processes are not disposed of effectively, presenting human health risks.

Only a small percentage of the country’s land area is protected in parks or nature preserves. Ichkeul National Park, in northern Tunisia, protects a lake and the surrounding wetlands that serve as a resting area for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds, including ducks, geese, and pink flamingos.

The government of Tunisia has ratified international environmental agreements pertaining to biodiversity, climate change, desertification, endangered species, environmental modification, hazardous wastes, marine dumping, ozone layer protection, ship pollution, and wetlands.


Throughout history, many peoples, including Romans, Vandals, black Africans, and Arabs, have invaded or settled in the region that is now Tunisia. Tunisians are a mixture of Berber and Arab stock, and they regard themselves as Arabs. Nearly everyone speaks Arabic.

The population of Tunisia is concentrated in the coastal plain. It is fairly dense in the hilly north, but the arid plateau, basin, and south are thinly settled. About two-thirds of the country’s people live in urban areas.

Principal Cities of Tunisia

The capital and largest city of Tunisia is the seaport of Tunis. Other important cities include Sfax, a port and center of trade on the eastern coast; Sūsah, or Sousse, another port and commercial center on the eastern coast; and Bizerte, a port on the northern coast. Al Qayrawān, or Kairouran, a historic Arab capital, is a Muslim holy city in the mountains of the northeast.

Language and Religion in Tunisia

Arabic is the official language of Tunisia, but the dialect of Arabic that is spoken in Tunisia is not standard Arabic, which is taught in the schools and used by the government. Many Tunisians speak French as a second language. Berber is still spoken in isolated communities in the southern part of the country and on the island of Jarbah (Djerba).

Islam is the state religion and is adhered to by 98 percent of the population; virtually all Muslims in Tunisia belong to the Sunni branch. There are small numbers of Roman Catholics, Jews, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants.

Education in Tunisia

Education in Tunisia is free and compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. Virtually all children attend six years of primary school. Instruction is conducted mainly in Arabic, although French is also used, especially at the college and university levels. In the 2006 school year primary schools had a total enrollment of 1.1 million pupils, and secondary, technical, and vocational schools, 1.2 million. In 2005 some 311,600 students were enrolled in institutions of higher education, primarily the three divisions of the University of Tunis (founded in 1958), arts and letters, sciences, and economics and business. Universities at Monastir and Sfax opened in 1986.

Cultural Institutions in Tunisia

Tunisia has three major libraries, all headquartered in Tunis. The National Library has a collection of more than 700,000 volumes. The Musée National du Bardo, founded in 1888 in Tunis, has collections of Punic, Greek, Roman, and Islamic art. Tunis also has a state-supported municipal theater, but much theater activity takes place at the International Cultural Center at Al Ḩammāmāt. The Musée National de Carthage is located near the ruins of ancient Carthage and has archaeological finds from the Punic and Roman periods. The Carthage Festival, an international arts festival, is held annually at the site of the ancient city.

Communications in Tunisia

The constitution of Tunisia guarantees freedom of the press and of expression. However, the government closely controls the media, and journalists who violate the press regulations are subject to punishment. Tunisian press includes 10 dailies with a combined daily circulation of 219,475 and more than three dozen other periodicals. Both radio and television broadcasting are under government operation.


The Tunisian economy is dominated by petroleum production, manufacturing, and tourism. Tunisia generally imports more than it exports. This trade deficit is offset by revenues from tourism. Economic development has been concentrated in the northern half of Tunisia.

Following independence in 1956, the government played a major role in directing Tunisia’s economic life, owning important industries, setting priorities for development, and regulating economic activities. Since the late 1980s the government has been privatizing state-owned industries and introducing other market reforms. This has exacerbated unemployment. In 1996 Tunisia entered an association agreement with the European Union (EU), which was to reduce tariffs and encourage European investment over a 12 year period.

In 2007 the government’s budget showed $10.5 billion in revenue and $10.2 billion in spending. The gross domestic product (GDP), which is a measure of the total value of all goods and services produced in the country, was $35 billion in 2007.

Labor in Tunisia

Of the economically active Tunisian population, 22 percent work in agriculture and fishing, 34 percent in industry, and 43 percent in services. Unemployment and underemployment are chronic national problems.

Agriculture of Tunisia

Annual agricultural yields in Tunisia fluctuate because of the frequency of drought and the lack of extensive water resources for irrigation. The leading crops in the fertile plains of the north include cereal grains such as wheat and barley; vegetables and melons; and fruits, most importantly grapes, dates from Saharan oases, and oranges from the Cape Bon Peninsula. About half the productive land is used for grazing, and, because of drought, the livestock industry is also subject to fluctuations. The country’s livestock includes sheep, goats, cattle, camels, horses, and poultry.

Fishing in Tunisia

A growing fishing industry exists along the coast of Tunisia. In 2007 the catch was 114,170 metric tons. The catch typically includes sardines, pilchards, prawns, cuttlefish, and mackerels.

Mining in Tunisia

Although not as rich in petroleum as its neighbors, Libya and Algeria, Tunisia does have several substantial deposits, both offshore and in the southern part of the country. Production of crude oil in 2004 totaled 27.4 million barrels. The country is also a major world producer of phosphates, used in making fertilizer. Production of natural gas increased in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Other mining products include lead, iron ore, and zinc. Salt is also produced in significant quantities.

Manufacturing in Tunisia

The Tunisian government has encouraged the development of export-oriented industries. Textiles, processed foods, and basic consumer goods are the country’s chief manufactured goods. Textiles contribute significantly to the country’s export earnings, with most of the textiles and leather goods going to European countries. Other manufacturing sectors promoted by the government and by foreign investment include transportation equipment, high technology, and chemicals.

More than half the country’s industry is located in the capital, Tunis. Other important manufacturing centers include Sūsah, Sfax, Gabes, Bājah (Béja), and Bizerte. The country’s main petroleum refinery is at Bizerte.

Energy in Tunisia

In 2006 Tunisia’s generating facilities produced 12.7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. Almost all of the country’s electricity is generated in thermal plants.

Transportation in Tunisia

Tunisia has a road network of 19,232 km (11,950 mi) connecting important commercial centers. The country is also served by 2,218 km (1,378 mi) of railroad track. Tunisia has four major ports: Tunis, Bizerte, Sūsah, and Sfax. A fifth port, AşŞukhayrah, specializes in petroleum bunkering. The country has five international airports, two of which serve Tunis.

Foreign Trade in Tunisia

Tunisia’s principal exports include textiles and leather goods, machinery and transportation equipment, petroleum and related products, phosphates and fertilizers, and agricultural products. Other important exports include wine, iron, and steel. Among the leading imports are machinery, petroleum products, electric machinery, and food. The principal purchasers of Tunisia’s exports are France, Italy, Germany, and Spain; chief sources of imports are France, Italy, and Germany. In 1995 Tunisia signed a trade agreement with the European Union (EU) that calls for more trade and fewer trade barriers between the EU and Tunisia. The agreement is scheduled to be implemented gradually over 12 years. The annual foreign trade of Tunisia usually shows a deficit. In 2007 exports totaled $15 billion and imports totaled $18.9 billion.

Tourism of Tunisia

Tourism is an important source of foreign exchange in Tunisia, and the government has done much to expand and improve the country’s tourist facilities. In 2007 some 6.8 million visitors spent $2,575 million in Tunisia. Among the country’s attractions are its fine beaches, especially those at Jarbah and Hammamet, and its archaeological sites, including the ancient city of Carthage and Roman ruins at Dougga and El Djem. Inland is Al Qayrawān, the first Arab capital and a Muslim holy site, which has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.


According to the constitution of 1959 Tunisia is a free, independent, and sovereign republic.

Executive of Tunisia

National executive power in Tunisia is exercised by the president, who is head of state and commander in chief of the army. The president also appoints a council of ministers, headed by a prime minister, which is responsible to the president. The constitution specifies that the president is to be popularly elected to a five-year term; in 1975, however, the National Assembly proclaimed President Habib Bourguiba president for life. Bourguiba held office until his ouster in November 1987. A referendum in May 2002 abolished the three-term limit on the presidency, enabling the incumbent president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to stand for reelection.

Legislature of Tunisia

Legislative power in Tunisia is vested in the unicameral Chamber of Deputies, which comprises 182 members popularly elected to five-year terms. The Chamber of Deputies holds two sessions a year, each lasting not more than three months.

Judiciary in Tunisia

The highest court is the Court of Cassation, located in Tunis. It has one criminal and three civil sections. Judges on this court are appointed by the president. At the next level are three courts of appeals—at Tunis, Sūsah, and Sfax—and below them 13 courts of the first instance. At the lowest level are cantonal justices in 51 local districts.

Local Government of Tunisia

For administrative purposes, Tunisia is divided into 23 governorates, each headed by a governor who is appointed by the president.

Political Parties of Tunisia

The principal political party is the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD; formerly the Destour Socialist Party), a moderate left-wing organization. The party permeates all aspects of political, social, and economic life in Tunisia. Other parties include the Movement of Social Democrats, the Movement of Popular Unity, the Popular Unity Party, and the Tunisian Communist Party.

Social Services in Tunisia

Free health care is available to a majority of the population. A system of social security, begun in 1950, provides maternity, health, and old-age benefits. By 2004 Tunisia had one of the highest life expectancy rates in Africa, 75.8 years. In addition, its infant mortality rate, at 23 deaths per 1,000 live births (2009), is one of Africa’s lowest.

Defense of Tunisia

In 2006 the armed forces of Tunisia comprised an army of 27,000 persons, a navy of 4,800, and an air force of 3,500.


In the earliest known period of its history, the region now called Tunisia was part of the Carthaginian Empire (see Carthage). According to tradition, Phoenician traders founded the city of Carthage in 814 BC at a location slightly northeast of the site of modern Tunis. In subsequent centuries Carthage became the center of a mighty empire that dominated most of northern Africa and intermittently ruled the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, Sardinia, and parts of Sicily.

Beginning in 264 BC Carthage clashed with the expanding Roman Empire in a series of bloody struggles known as the Punic Wars. In the last of these, the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), Rome defeated the Carthaginians and completely destroyed their capital. From the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD most of the region now constituting Tunisia was part of the Roman province called Africa. The rebuilt Carthage became the center of Roman power in North Africa.

During the 5th century a Germanic tribe known as the Vandals moved south through the Iberian Peninsula, crossed the Mediterranean, and wrested the province from Roman control. After a century of Vandal rule, from about 430 to 534, the region was reconquered for Rome by the Byzantine general Belisarius.

Arab, Spanish, and Turkish Rule

The region remained under Byzantine rule until Arab adherents of Islam conquered it in the 7th century. Under the Arabs Tunisia acquired an inland capital at Kairouan (now Al Qayrawān). The Arab conquerors ruled from the late 7th to the early 16th century (see Spread of Islam). During that period they replaced the Roman-Christian culture with Islamic culture. During the Muslim era a succession of dynasties wielded power, notably the Aghlabites (800-909), the Fatimids (909-973), and the Zeirids (10th century). In the 9th century, during Aghlabite rule, Tunisia was the base for the Arab conquest of the Mediterranean island of Sicily.

In the latter part of the 12th century the Normans (led by Roger II, the king of Sicily) extended their conquest of Sicily to most of the ports of Tunisia. But the Normans were expelled by the Almohad rulers from Morocco within 10 years. After a period of Moroccan rule, Tunisia became independent again under the Hafsite dynasty (1228-1574). The Hafsites made Tunis their capital. During this period of Arab domination, the region came to be known as Tunis, or Tunisia, from its chief city. The greatest medieval Islamic historian, Ibn Khaldun, was born in Tunis in 1332.

Arab political supremacy came to an end in the early 16th century, when Tunisia became caught in struggles between the Spanish and Ottoman empires for supremacy in the Mediterranean region. In 1534 Mediterranean pirate Barbarossa (Khayr ad-Din) captured the city of Tunis. He was expelled by Spanish imperial forces in the following years. Spanish dominance in Tunisia was short-lived, however. In 1574 armies of the Ottoman Empire defeated the Spanish and assumed control over Tunisia.

Under the Ottoman Turks, Tunisia enjoyed a period of relative stability from 1574 to 1881. For over 100 years Tunisia was ruled by governors from Istanbul. But in 1705 Husayn ibn Ali, an Ottoman military commander of Greek origin, declared himself the hereditary ruler, owing allegiance to the Ottoman sultan. He founded the Husaynid dynasty, whose rulers were known as beys. Husaynid rule secured for Tunisia a limited degree of autonomy and a large measure of prosperity.

An End to Piracy

Piracy, long a major Tunisian enterprise, continued to flourish under Husaynid auspices. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries a number of maritime nations, among which were the American colonies, paid regular bribes to the Tunisian government as insurance against raids on their Mediterranean shipping. Between 1801 and 1805 and in 1815 the U.S. Navy curbed Mediterranean piracy by attacking Tunis and other corsair (pirate) bases along the so-called Barbary Coast of northern Africa.

As a result of the loss of its revenues from piracy the Tunisian government was plunged deeply into debt. The financial crisis was made especially acute by the unrestrained personal extravagances of the beys and by the necessity for frequent, costly government reprisals against rebel uprisings. The chief creditors of Tunisia were France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, all of which had imperialistic ambitions in northern Africa.

In 1834 France annexed Algeria. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, France agreed to abandon any claim to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in return for a similar assurance by Britain in regard to Tunisia. A French army entered Tunisia from Algeria in 1881, ostensibly to subdue unruly tribesmen. In a series of sharp conflicts the French crushed native Tunisian opposition. On May 12, 1881, the reigning bey signed the Treaty of Kasser Said, known also as the Bardo Treaty, which acknowledged Tunisia to be a French protectorate. The two countries signed the supplemental Convention of Marsa in 1883.

The French Protectorate

French rule in Tunisia brought many important social and political changes. After 1884 a French resident general governed the country, although the bey remained the ruler in name. A sizable group of French settlers colonized the northern coastal region, filled administrative posts, operated business enterprises, built roads and railroads, and opened schools that taught in French and Arabic.

Inspired by the idea of modernizing their country, a new generation of Tunisians formed the Young Tunisian Party in 1907. The Young Tunisians advocated the right of Tunisians to manage their own affairs. For several decades French authorities succeeded in suppressing the fledgling nationalist movements. In 1920, however, various nationalist groups united and formed the Destour (Constitutional) Party, which advocated extensive democratic reforms. The Destour movement was disbanded in 1925 after some minor reforms were introduced, but it was revived during the economic depression of the 1930s. In 1934 a group of younger, more energetic men broke away to form the more militant Neo-Destour, or New Constitutional, Party. Habib Bourguiba, a Tunisian lawyer who had studied in Paris, became secretary general of the party. Bourguiba aimed at rallying mass support among Tunisians and the French soon banned the party. Bourguiba and his associates spent time in prison, and after World War II broke out in 1939 he was deported to France.

After France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940 during World War II, Bourguiba was released by the Germans. However, he refused to cooperate with the Germans and supported the Allies. In Tunisia, the French authorities cooperated fully with the Vichy government, which governed France after its defeat by Germany. Tunisia became the scene of fighting between German and Allied forces following an Allied landing in North Africa in late 1942. After the Germans were driven out of Tunisia in 1943, the Allies transferred control of Tunisia to the Free French. The French authorities immediately arrested hundreds of alleged Fascist sympathizers and deposed the reigning bey as a collaborator. These actions provoked deep resentment among the Tunisian people and prepared the way for the postwar renewal of nationalist agitation.

In 1945, after the end of the war, France accused Bourguiba of collaborating with the enemy. He was forced to seek refuge in Cairo, Egypt. But France felt compelled to make some concessions to Tunisia. In 1946 France granted Tunisia status as a semiautonomous associated state of the French Union, and the following year the French resident general formed a ministry composed chiefly of Tunisians. The French, however, retained the preponderance of political power. In 1949 Bourguiba was allowed to return from exile. He resumed his campaign for Tunisian independence, and France responded by permitting more Tunisians to serve in ministerial posts and in the civil service. But widespread violence broke out in 1952 after negotiations over further reforms collapsed. The French position in Tunisia became increasingly untenable as the disorders continued unabated into 1954.

Tunisian Resistance to French Rule

As anti-French disorders became increasingly violent in 1954, French premier Pierre Mendès-France arrived in Tunisia on a mission of conciliation. Mendès-France promised the protectorate full internal autonomy under a government composed of Tunisians. This statement proved acceptable to nationalist leaders, notably Bourguiba, and rioting came to a halt. Lengthy negotiations followed, and in 1955 the Tunisian premier Tahar ben Ammar and the French premier Edgar Faure signed a series of conventions and protocols that greatly increased the extent of Tunisian self-rule. France retained control of Tunisian foreign policy and defense, however.

In 1955 the first all-Tunisian government in 74 years was installed in Tunis. Many nationalists actively opposed the new regime and pressed for an even greater measure of independence from France. Further French concessions were embodied in a historic protocol signed in Paris in March 1956. The agreement in effect abrogated the Bardo Treaty of 1881 and recognized Tunisia as a completely sovereign, constitutional monarchy under the bey of Tunis. The first national legislative elections in Tunisian history took place in 1956 and resulted in a decisive victory for the Neo-Destour Party. Bourguiba was elected president of the first Tunisian National Assembly and named premier. The assembly adopted a constitution transferring to the Tunisian people the legislative powers hitherto exercised by the bey. Tunisia was admitted to the United Nations (UN) later in 1956.

The political strength of the Neo-Destour Party was demonstrated again when the party polled about 90 percent of the vote in various municipal elections in 1957. Tunisian women voted in those elections for the first time.

Tunisia Under Bourguiba

In 1957 the National Assembly overthrew the last vestiges of the monarchy by deposing the bey, proclaiming Tunisia a republic, and electing Bourguiba president. Widespread dismissals of French civil servants were carried out in the months following. About a third of the French residents of Tunisia left the country, taking considerable amounts of capital and diminishing the available reserves of technological skills.

In 1959 Tunisia held its first elections under its new constitution. Unopposed, Bourguiba was reelected president, and the Neo-Destour Party won all seats in the National Assembly. He had complete power.

Algeria’s long war for independence from France, along with Egypt’s support for Algerian independence, exerted pressure on Tunisia to remove any French presence. After prolonged negotiations, in which the United Nations Security Council became involved, France finally evacuated a naval base at Bizerte in 1963. However, relations with France were generally good. Bourguiba believed that Tunisia’s future lay with the West, especially with France and the United States.

Bourguiba generally followed a moderate, pragmatic foreign policy. During 1963 and 1964 Tunisia moved toward closer economic and political cooperation with Algeria and Morocco. At the same time Tunisia moved to strengthen ties with the Arab East, especially Egypt. Both Bourguiba and Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, sought to be leaders in the Arab world.

Bourguiba’s newly forged ties with the Arab East were shattered in 1965 when he unexpectedly proposed a negotiated settlement between the Arab states and Israel on the basis of the 1947 UN resolution. This settlement would have recognized the fact of Israel’s existence. It was rejected by most Arab states, led by Egypt, and also by Israel.

Differences between Tunisia and other Arab states worsened after relations with Egypt were severed and Tunisia began to boycott Arab League meetings. In the 1967 Six-Day War between Arab and Israeli forces, however, Tunisia gave full support to the Arab cause, and diplomatic relations with Egypt were restored.

At home, Bourguiba’s policy involved central government control over the economy. In 1964 the National Assembly nationalized all foreign-owned lands, which mainly affected farmland belonging to French families. France’s reaction was to cancel all financial assistance to Tunisia, leaving the country in serious economic crisis. The land that was purchased or expropriated from the French was to be operated collectively by Tunisian farmers. This experiment with socialism turned into a failure as a result of mismanagement and opposition from the farmers. But during the elections of November 1964, renewed emphasis was placed on “Tunisian Socialism,” and the Neo-Destour Party changed its name to Parti Socialiste Destourien. In that election President Bourguiba, the sole candidate, won by 96 percent of the votes; the Destour Party won all 90 of the National Assembly seats.

Bourguiba’s government improved the rights of women, and it attempted to weaken the influence of religion, regarding Islam as a force that was holding back modernization. Religious schools were abolished, and Tunisia’s theological university, a center of Islamic learning, was incorporated into the secular University of Tunis. But Bourguiba did not succeed in a plan to end the Islamic tradition of fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Bourguiba was reelected to a third term in November 1969. Large petroleum reserves had been discovered in Tunisia in 1964, and the country’s earnings grew substantially with the increase in world oil prices following the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. In 1975 Bourguiba was named president for life “in recognition of services rendered.” By then he had grown increasingly autocratic and was resisting demands for reform from within his own party. From 1963 to 1981 Bouguiba’s political party was the only legal party in Tunisia.

Recent Developments

In the early 1980s the fall in world oil prices hurt the Tunisian economy. In 1984 growing unemployment and rising prices set off strikes and riots, which were met with government repression and the removal of militant trade union leaders. A growing Islamic fundamentalist movement, with ties to Iran and Libya, appeared to pose a threat. In 1986 Bourguiba ordered the mass arrest of Islamic militants on terrorism charges and called for death penalties, which other government leaders thought ran the risk of igniting a serious social conflict. In 1987 Bourguiba was deposed from the presidency as “senile,” and the prime minister, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, assumed the presidency.

While retaining the secret police, Ben Ali freed political prisoners, legalized most opposition parties, and eased restrictions on the press. Although several parties contested the April 1989 elections (Tunisia’s first multiparty elections since 1956), his Democratic Constitutional Rally Party won all 141 seats in parliament, and Ben Ali was elected to the presidency unopposed. In the early 1990s he cracked down on Muslim fundamentalists. In 1994, 1999, and 2004 Ben Ali was again reelected to the presidency. The constitution was amended in 2002 to permit Ben Ali to extend his term in office. Ben Ali’s opponents criticized the slow pace of democratic reforms and questioned the validity of election results that returned the president to office with more than 90 percent of the vote.

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