Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History of Tunisia

Tunisia is the smallest country in North Africa, but throughout its history, its Mediterranean coastal plain has been both a political and an economic centre of great importance. Below is a quick overview of the history of Tunisia, introducing you to different chapters of our file on Tunisian history.

History of Tunisia
General view of the atrium of Al-Zaytuna Mosque in Tunis, Tunisia on November 19, 2019. The mosque’s architecture features rectangle shaped minarets along with authentic columns. The mosque is known to host one of the first and greatest universities in the history of Islam. It was built in 698 during the Umayyad period. Yassine Gaidi / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu via AFP

C.R. Pennell, former Al-Tajir Lecturer in the History of Islam and the Middle East, University of Melbourne, Australia

Tunisian History at a Glance

The Phoenicians established a city at Carthage that became the starting point of colonisation of Mediterranean Africa, and a rival to the power of Rome which eventually defeated it.

The Roman province of Africa was incorporated into the first great Muslim caliphate, the Umayyads, and their successors, the Abassids. Even under the Abassids, the local rulers had considerable autonomy and in the tenth century CE, the Shia Fatimid dynasty replaced the Abassids completely. The capital of the Fatimid Caliphate at Mahdia, on the Tunisian coast, became the point of departure to invade Egypt at the end of the century.

Even after the Fatimids moved their capital to Cairo, Tunisia remained a land of great political and religious importance, and the seat in the mid-thirteenth century of a formidable local caliphate, the Hafsids. Hafsid rule declined, but the pattern of local autonomy emerging out of wider imperial conquest repeated itself after Ottoman forces took Tunis in the sixteenth century.

Within a century, Ottoman local military commanders, the Beys, had seized autonomous power and in the early eighteenth century a beylical family, the Husaynids, set up a dynasty that remained the titular ruler of Tunisia, through the French colonial protectorate up until independence in 1956.

After the end of the Second World War, demands for independence grew. In 1956, under pressure from world powers, the French government conceded independence to the nationalist Neo-Destour party, whose leader Habib Bourguiba, sought a Tunisia that was aligned with the west. The Husaynid dynasty was abolished and Bourguiba became the first president of Tunisia in 1957.

Bourguiba’s pro-western government concentrated on social and political modernization, often at odds with local religious traditions. As economic conditions worsened in the 1980s, Bourguiba’s popularity declined and in 1987, Zine El-Abidine ben Ali ousted Bourguiba in a coup.

Ben Ali’s initial promises of political rights and democracy ended up with falsifying election results, suppressing human rights and violating human rights. In 2010, there was a rebellion in Tunisia that was the starting point for the Arab spring movements. Democracy flourished in Tunisia until the early 2020s when it was almost entirely abolished by the regime of Kais Saied.

Tunisian History in Detail

Tunisia in Antiquity – Phoenicians, Romans and Byzantines

Around 1200 BC, the Phoenicians reached North Africa. They built Carthage in Tunisia around 810 BC. War between Rome and Carthage led to the incorporation of Tunisia into the Roman Empire as the province of Africa. When the Roman Empire split, Tunisia came under the Western Roman Empire, ruled from Rome.

For a brief period of rule between the mid-fifth century and the early 6th century CE, Tunisia was conquered and ruled by the Christian Vandals, before being reconquered by the eastern Roman Empire ruled from Christian Byzantium (later Constantinople and now Istanbul). The Byzantines held onto Tunisia until it was conquered by Muslim armies.

Tunisia: The Coming of Islam

In 670CE, Muslim Arab armies entered the Byzantine province of Africa, which became Ifriqiya in Arabic. The Muslims established the city of Kairouan, which became an important religious and economic centre. As the Abbasid caliphate weakened, Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab – one of their local governors – set up a local dynastic emirate that ruled Ifriqiya until the beginning of the 10th century CE, although it still proclaimed formal allegiance to the Abbasids. At the beginning of the 10th century, the Aghlabid dynasty collapsed in the face of a new Shia dynasty with its centre at Mahdia.

This Fatimid state went on to move its capital to Cairo in 972 and local authority was transferred to the Zirids, until in 1159 Tunisia fell into the hands of the Almohad dynasty with its capital in Marrakesh. When the Almohad dynasty lost control of Muslim Iberia, many refugees from al-Andalus settled in North Africa, particularly in Tunisia which became an important cultural centre.

Its rulers, the Hafsids, welcomed the family of Ibn Khaldun, the great Muslim theoretician of history in the thirteenth century. The Hafsid state (1230-1574) reached its peak when Al-Mustansir Bin Abu Zakaria proclaimed himself Caliph in 1258, after Baghdad fell to the Mongols.

Tunisia in the Ottoman Empire

In 1574, Ottoman forces invaded Tunisia as part of their progressive occupation of all of North Africa, apart from Morocco. At first, the Ottomans appointed Pashas to rule Ifriqiya, but during the 17th century power was gradually taken over by senior military officers, the deys, who first formed the Muradi dynasty (1631-1702) and then, in 1705, the dynasty of Husaynid Beys, who remained rulers of Tunisia, in theory at least, until 1957.

Tunisia: European Influence

In the nineteenth century, the Husaynid Beys continued to rule in Tunis, although economic difficulties inside the province and external economic pressures brought profound changes in their relationship with the European powers.

In 1881, the French government seized control of Tunisia. Tunisia did not become a French colony but remained a protectorate. This preserved the fiction of a Tunisian state and kept the Husaynid Beys in place as its rulers.

In reality, Tunisia became a bargaining chip in the rivalries between European powers that divided North Africa among themselves. Inside Tunisia, colonial rule brought French education and French political concepts that culminated in the emergence of a nationalist movement.

In 1934, Habib Bourguiba helped found the Neo-Destour Party that demanded independence after the Second World War. Bourguiba became the first president of independent Tunisia in 1957 and the Husaynid dynasty was finally abolished.

Tunisia: Bourguiba and Ben Ali

As president, Bourguiba began what he saw as the rapid modernization of the Tunisian state. He aligned the country closely with western countries and opposed religious conservatism, implementing a policy of near-secularisation. Bourguiba established an effective education system and brought in gender equality legislation that was among the most radical in the Arab World. As Bourguiba’s rule was not a democratic one, the power of the presidency increased, culminating in Bourguiba making himself president for life.

The extreme authoritarian nature of the regime and the economic crisis of the late 1970s led to opposition from the labour movement and religious radicals. In 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a senior member of the regime, organised a coup, promising to bring back democracy and respect for human rights. However, he instituted an oppressive regime with rigged elections and human rights violations. The corruption of the secular elite encouraged the emergence of a powerful Islamic movement.

The Tunisian Revolution of 2010

Political disillusionment, caused by fierce police repression and economic hardship sparked protests in Tunisia in 2010, beginning with the public suicide of the street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, who burned himself to death in Sid Bouzid in southern Tunisia. Protests spread across the country and led to the collapse of the regime in early 2011. The Tunisian revolution then inspired people in other Arab countries, which led to a protest movement that became known as the Arab Spring.

A new political system emerged in which liberal and secular forces rivalled a powerful Islamist movement. In 2014, an umbrella National Dialogue Quartet, inspired by the trade union movement, succeeded in drafting a new constitution and having it accepted in a referendum. Presidential and legislative elections were held in October 2014.

The Tunisian Democratic Transition 2014-2019

The democratic transition of Tunisia began very hopefully. Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of the secularist liberal party called Nidaa Tounes, became the first democratically elected president in Tunisian history. But parliament was split between Nidaa Tounes and the powerful Islamist movement, Ennahda. While economic conditions worsened, political division widened.

The coalition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda began to fracture. Islamist terrorism spread in Tunisia as some radicals aligned themselves with the Islamic State movement. In January 2018, President Essebsi’s government imposed austerity measures that led to huge protests across the country.

Essebsi died in July 2019, when elections were already about to be called. Kais Saied, a former law professor who had no political party affiliation, won the presidency on an anti-corruption platform.

Democracy in Crisis 2019-2024

Kais Saied, the incoming president, failed to overcome the political divisions between the secularists and the Islamic movements and attempted to appeal for wider support in the country. In July 2021, he suspended parliament, removed the independence of the judiciary and effectively declared martial law. He tried to build up populist lines of political control through local groups, but the new system became increasingly repressive, and the economic conditions worsened.