Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History of Tunisia

tunisia history
The new constitution was adopted during the plenary session of Sunday, January 26, 2014 / Photo HH.


Tunisia’s small space did not prevent it from playing a vital historical role in the Middle East and North Africa. It was the Arab Spring Revolution starting point in 2011, noting that Tunisia is the most Arab country moving towards implementing secularism and gender equality. Known previously as “Ifriqiya,” Tunisia was the historic center of the Muslim campaigns to expand in the Arab Maghreb and Europe. The Fatimid Caliphate was founded in this country. After the Abbasid Caliphate’s fall in 1258, Tunisia’s ruler was for a few years the sole Muslim Caliph. In ancient history, Tunisia was the home of the Kingdom of Carthage, which stood toe-to-toe against the Roman Empire during the Punic wars.

In this section, we will dive into this country’s history from its present to its past. By this, we attempt to get through the essential events which laid out Tunisia’s present and identity from a historian’s perspective.

The Arab Spring Starting Point (2020 - 2011)

The Tunisian “Mohamed Bouazizi” did not know that protesting against his economic difficulties would overthrow the regime in his country. Consequently, this act launched the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. What started as poor Tunisian protests quickly touched all the social groups and pushed them to go out to the streets. People protested against the economic situation and wanted to obtain more political rights.

When President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s attempts did not succeed in containing these protests, the regime was forced to step down. Ben Ali escaped to Saudi Arabia on the 14th of January 2011.

After the Tunisian revolution’s success, Tunisia was able to live a democratic transition of power through three presidential elections. Since the end of 2019, university professor Kais Saied is the president of Tunisia.
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From Tunisia’s Revolution To Bourguiba and Ben Ali Era (2011 - 1956)

The Tunisians had enough of the authoritarian practices of “Habib Bourguiba.” These practices encouraged them to go out to the streets and demand more political rights and democracy. Back then, Ben Ali emerged from Bourguiba’s regime to promise them economic and political openness and pave the road to democracy. The new Tunisian president did not keep his promises. He falsified the elections’ results, continuing in the footsteps of Bourguiba’s in respect to freedoms’ suppression and human rights violations. According to the Truth and Dignity Commission, Ben Ali’s and Bourguiba’s violations accounted for more than 62,000 charges of corruption, torture, and other forms of human rights violations.

After independence from France, the first Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba launched a series of reforms that included establishing an advanced education system and enacting relative gender equality legislation. To bring Tunisia closer to the western world, Bourguiba tried to repeal all that he deemed related to religious conservatism. However, many were disappointed in his government which became more authoritarian and exclusionary. This government realized the secular elite’s interests at the expense of the people’s needs.
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From the French Protectorate to the Republic Era (1956 - 1881)

After the end of World War II, demands calling for independence have grown. In the end, France had to comply with these demands due to the pressure exerted by the world powers. Europeans supported Neo Destour’s party leader Bourguiba, who wanted Tunisia to adopt a western lifestyle with the independence drawing near. Accordingly, Bourguiba became the first president of the independent republic in 1957.

Between 1881 and 1956, Tunisia was under the French Protectorate. France kept the Husainid dynasty in its superficial positions.
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Between The Ottomans and the Beys (1881 - 1574)

Spain’s raids towards many strategic regions in Ifriqiya encouraged the Ottomans to expand towards North Africa. At that time, the Ottomans were a greater threat to the Hafsid dynasty than the Spanish, given that many Arab Muslims and Islamic scholars favored an Islamic rule over a Christian one.

By 1574, the Ottoman invasion ended the Hafsid dynasty’s rule in Tunisia. The Ottoman Pasha became the ruler of Ifriqiya. Over a century, Tunisia’s rule transitioned from the Ottoman Pasha to the Deys “Military Leaders,” the Muradid Beys (1631-1702), and then to the Husainid Beys (1705-1957).
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Between the Hafsids and the Fatimids (1574 - 909)

The Hafsid state (1230-1574) reached its prime when “Al Mustansir Ben Abu Zakaria” became the Muslim Caliph officially between 1258 and 1261 after Baghdad’s fall. Before the Hafsids, the North African region – including Tunisia – succumbed to the  Almohad state since 1130. This was due to the Spanish and the Sicilians’ forays.

The Fatimids had already invaded the city of Kairouan in 909. In 973, the fourth Fatimid Caliph, Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah, moved from Tunisia (Ifriqiya at that time) to Egypt. Afterward, Ifriqiya has undergone the rule of the Amazighs Zirid. This was at first under the protection of the Shia Fatimid Caliph, then as an independent state since 1048.
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Between Romans and the persistence of Islam (909 - 146 BC)

The Muslim Arab armies entered the Roman Tunisia province in 670. They establish the city of Kairouan, which became their base in Al Maghreb. After the Umayyad state’s demise, Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab – one of the local leaders – led an army that enabled him to sustain stability in Ifriqiya. Afterward, he was granted the title “Emir” and ruled – he and then his dynasty – Ifriqiya between 800 and 909.

Before Islam reached Tunisia, the Byzantines ruled in Tunisia for 150 years after defeating the Vandals in 533. Back then, the Christian influence had grown in the region (Including Tunisia). The Byzantine rule was only effective in the Tunisian coastal cities, while the rest of the country was under different Amazighs tribes’ rule.

Hercules – the Son of Carthage governor – ruled Rome in 619. He defended Constantinople against the Persians and regain control over the region that includes the current Egypt and  Syria.

Before that, Julius Caesar rebuilt Carthage, which became the third city in the Roman Empire and the Ifriqiya province’s capital.
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From Phoenicians to Romans (146 BC - 1200 BC)

Around 1200 BC, the Phoenicians reached North Africa. They built Carthage in Tunisia around 810 BC. During the Punic and the Roman eras, Tunisia was the main region for the Phoenicians colonization in the region that Amazigh populated. The Amazigh used to live then in agricultural villages that included tribal units, each with a local leader supported by a senate.
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