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From Antiquity to the French Protectorate

Roman temple in Dougga / Photo Shutterstock


The Byzantine Empire
The Coming of Islam
The Rustamid Kingdom
The Fatimid Dynasty
The Almohads
The Hafsid Dynasty
The Ottomans of Ifriqiya
Husaynid Beys
The French Protectorate

Approximately 200,000 years ago Stone Age people, who originated in the deeper Africa, came to Tunisia as hunters, gatherers and fishers. As Tunisia was much wetter than it now is, its south was a savannah with forests. With the changing climate following the last Ice Age, about 8,000 years ago, the country became drier, and the Sahara developed in southern Tunisia. The Capsian culture (named after the town of Gafsa) later arrived from the east. The Capsians raised crops and introduced village life into Tunisia. They are also known for their pottery.


In about 1200 BCE, the Phoenicians arrived in North Africa, including what is now Tunisia. Throughout the Punic and Roman eras, Tunisia was the primary area of Phoenician settlement, in a region traditionally inhabited by Berbers. The Berbers lived in farming villages that comprised tribal units with a local leader, assisted by a council of elders. The first Phoenician settlement was at Utica, north-west of Tunis. The most important Phoenician settlement, however, was to become Carthage, a city that was founded around 810 BCE near present-day Tunis. According to a legend, Carthage was founded by the daughter of Pygmalion, a king of Tyre. The city was, in any case, created partly to counter the increasing Greek influence in the area. Carthage would quickly become the most important power in the region, controlling, as it did, the coast from what is now western Libya to the Atlantic. Once the Phoenicians controlled large parts of the coastline, they began to settle inland, especially in the Medjerda Valley and the Cap Bon Peninsula, which offered fertile land that the Phoenicians could use for agriculture. The Carthaginians would eventually fight the Greeks over the island of Sicily and took control of it in the 3rd century BCE.

Carthage engaged in three Punic wars with the Roman Empire. The name ‘Punic’ stems from ‘Punici’, the Latin word for Carthaginians (Phoenicians). In 263 BCE, Rome attacked Carthage for the first time, with the aim of winning Sicily back. The war, led by the general Hamilcar Barca, lasted twenty years before Carthage, by then almost bankrupt, had to surrender. Only four years later, the Romans also took Sardinia and Corsica. Growing bankruptcy resulted in further troubles for Carthage, when unpaid soldiers began to protest and revolt.

The Cathaginians in the second Punic war were led by Hannibal Barca, the son of Hamilcar Barca. Hannibal took control of Spain in 221 BC and, having already sworn an oath of enmity to Rome at the age of nine, soon headed for Italy with an army of 90,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry, and 37 elephants (only 23,000 soldiers and 17 elephants survived the crossing of the Alps). While Hannibal was successful on the battlefield – most famously at the Battle of Cannae, where he defeated a Roman army of 80,000 – he was unable to take Rome, whose forces greatly outnumbered his.

In order to defeat Carthage, which had been substantially weakened by the first two Punic wars, Rome launched the third Punic war, in 149 BCE. The Roman army came took Utica, the old Phoenician city, after three years of fighting. The war left the city and its surroundings devastated. This was the end of Carthage’s independent existence.

The Roman Era

Having taken control of Carthage following the third Punic War, the Romans initially left many of its new acquisitions to local Berber rulers of Numidia, the ancient Libyan kingdom in Algeria and a smaller part of western Tunisia (202-46 BCE). Numidia had previously been marginalized by the Carthage domination of the region, but it managed to establish a kingdom that included Libya and western Algeria. On several occasions, Rome attempted to split the kingdom to limit its regional dominance, before eventually taking full control of it, in about 46 BCE.

The following centuries witnessed a long period of prosperity in what is now Tunisia. The Romans eventually rebuilt and reorganized large parts of the Carthaginian territory and its cities. Carthage was rebuilt by Julius Caesar and would become the third city of the Roman Empire and the capital of the province of Africa. Other cities that were rebuilt include Chellah, Volubilis, and Mogador (in Morocco). People from across the Roman Empire came to Carthage, attracted by the rich agriculture of the surrounding areas. For example, the Tell Plateau and the Medjerda Valley produced more than 60 percent of the empire’s wheat. The city not only became an economic centre but also prospered culturally under the Romans.

While some Berbers remained poor under Roman rule, there are also instances of Berbers who managed to rise in society, such as Apuleius, a prose writer who travelled throughout the Roman Empire. Several Berbers even received Roman citizenship. Wealthy inhabitants created theatres, baths, and temples, some of which still exist, in ruins, as at Dougga, Tunisia’s most important Roman site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located on a hill in the countryside of northern Tunisia and comprises the best preserved remains of a Roman city in all of North Africa.

The Vandals

In the 5th century CE, King Gaiseric of the Vandals, a tribal group of Germanic Arian Christians, together with the Alans, their Iranian allies, attacked Rome’s lands in North Africa, which they believed would be easy to conquer. In 429, about 80,000 people – men, women, and children – travelled to Numidia, west of Carthage. In 439 the Vandals took the city of Carthage, which would become the heart of their kingdom. In order to ensure their supremacy, the Vandals formed alliances with the Berbers. Gaiseric expanded his territory and in 455 took Rome, a city weakened by internal discord. Gaiseric also controlled Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.

Although they initially entered an alliance with the Vandals, the Berbers would eventually suffer severe religious persecution under Vandal rule. Over the years, however, the Berbers became stronger and eventually threatened the security of the Vandals. The Vandals built no economic or cultural infrastructure, a fact that eventually contributed to their decline. Their rule over the area that includes present-day Tunisia lasted less than a century.

The Byzantine Empire

Mosaic, Bardo Museum

Justinian, who ruled the Byzantine Empire from Constantinople, revived the eastern part of the then Christianized Roman Empire and, having similar plans for the western territories, sent his general Flavius Belisarius to fight the Vandals, which Belisarius did successfully in 533. This paved the way for 150 years of Byzantine rule and resulted in the increasing influence of Christianity in the region that includes Tunisia. Yet direct Byzantine rule was limited largely to Tunisia’s coastal cities, while the interior of the country was still mostly controlled by various Berber tribes.

At the beginning of the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire faced several challenges that would shape it for years to come. At that time, the Byzantines were frequently at war with the Sassanid Persians. While these wars generally resulted in only minor border changes, at the beginning of the 600s CE, the Byzantine Empire was weakened greatly by the defeat of its Emperor Maurice by the Sassanid Persians and the latters’ subsequent invasion under Chosroes (Khosrow) II.

Heraclius, the son of the exarch of Carthage, became Roman emperor in 619 and would eventually restore the empire. He built defences and reorganized the government to counter the Persians, who had continued their invasion in the face of little resistance. Heraclius took Antioch in 611, Jerusalem in 614, and Alexandria in 619. When the Persians attempted to take Constantinople, Heraclius moved a Roman army to defend the city. The battle unexpectedly turned in favour of Heraclius’ troops, and in 628 they killed the Persian Shah, Chosroes II. With a weakened Persia, Heraclius was able to regain control of the area that now includes Egypt and Syria.

The Byzantine Empire would, however, almost simultaneously come under a new threat, from the south. The Prophet Muhammad (570-632) gave rise to a new religion, which the Arabs were eager to spread throughout the region. In the Battle of Yarmouk (636), the Byzantines were defeated by Arab Muslims, who subsequently also took Egypt and Syria.

The Coming of Islam

The Great Mosque of Kairouan
The Great Mosque of Kairouan

In the mid-7th century, Christianity was severely challenged in North Africa, including present-day Tunisia. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Umayyad caliphate, which reigned between 661 and 750 from Damascus, controlled the newly created Islamic state. Under the command of Uqba ibn Nafi, an Arab Muslim army in 670 entered the Roman province of Africa, called Ifriqiya in Arabic. On behalf of the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty, Uqba ibn Nafi founded the city of Kairouan (‘stronghold’ in Arabic), which would become their base in their struggle for conquest. Kairouan’s location, between the coast and the mountains, revealed that Uqba ibn Nafi intended to extend his influence to Tunisia’s southern autonomous Berber regions, which had largely escaped Carthaginian and Roman control.

The main resistance to the Arab Muslim army consisted initially of Berber forces, often Christians led by Kusaila. Eventually, however, these Berbers were defeated and Kusaila imprisoned. The Islamic conquest of North Africa was almost completed when Caliph Abd al-Malik took power – he ruled from 685 to 705 – leading to the conquest of strategically important Carthage.

Despite the gradual advance of Arab Muslim troops into Berber territories, some Berbers continued to offer fierce resistance. The Jarawa tribe, for example, led by a woman called by the Arabs ‘the prophetess’ (Dihya, or Kahena) attacked the Islamic troops continuously, although, for strategic reasons, without threatening their base in Kairouan. In 696, she defeated the Arabs at Tébessa, which is now part of Algeria, but she was eventually killed in al-Jem. Upon her death, she became a legend and a national hero who is still celebrated in Tunisia.

After the fall of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus in 750, Berber disorder increased in North Africa. The quick establishment of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad in 750 helped little to contain the unrest. The geographical distance to the capital of the caliphate also bothered some of the Arabs in Ifriqiya, who were disturbed by the caliphate’s meddling in what they considered regional affairs. During the increasing unrest, a provincial leader, Ibrahim I ibn al-Aghlab, led an army with which he managed to enforce stability in Ifriqiya. When he had re-established stability, Ibn al-Aghlab was awarded the title of amir, and he and his descendants ruled Ifriqiya from 800 to 909. Under Aghlabid rule, the economy of Ifriqiya improved markedly. The water system was improved, to supply towns and promote the growing of olive trees and other agricultural products. Trade routes were established that connected Ifriqiya with the interior of the continent, including Sudan and the Sahara. Sea routes linked Ifriqiya to Alexandria in Egypt, which would soon become a main destination for merchants.

Despite the relative prosperity of the population at that time, the rule was not popular amongst Arabs or Berbers. The unpopularity can be attributed to several mutually reinforcing factors: the perceived lack of legitimacy of the administration which ruled from such a great distance, in Baghdad; the un-Islamic way of life of many of its rulers; and the disrespect they showed Berbers who converted to Islam. Such practices were contrary to the dominant Maliki school of Islam in Tunisia.

The Rustamid Kingdom

The Rustamid kingdom had its roots in the Kharijite rebellion against the fourth caliph Ali, which caused a division in his armed forces. The Kharijites (‘those who go out’, alluding to the split within the military) followed a puritanical and egalitarian belief that appealed to many Berbers. In North Africa, the Berber Kharijites soon rebelled against the rulers on account of its discrimination against Muslim Berbers, in the form, for instance, of a special tax imposed on them. Decades of armed clashes between the Kharijites and the Arab Islamic regime followed, resulting, in 772, in a defeat of the Berber Kharijites.

Some Kharijtes, however, remained in the region, and in 776 they established an administration, with its capital at Tahert, on the southern slope of the Ouarsenis mountains, in present-day Algeria. Their rulership lasted until 909 and became part of the Rustamid kingdom, founded by Abd al-Rahman ibn Rustam, an imam of Persian origins. It was governed as a theocracy by religious leaders descended from Ibn Rustam.

The Aghlabids in Ifriqiya were unable to defeat the neighbouring Rustamid kingdom and were forced to recognize its authority over the Sahara area in North Africa. Tahert, the capital, derived its wealth from its control of trade across the Sahara: gold, ivory, and slaves were passed along the route, in exchange for goods produced in the Mediterranean basin. The kingdom attracted people from across the Islamic world, including Christians, who were well received by Kharijites. In 909, both the Rustamid kingdom and the Aghlabid province of Ifriqiya were conquered by the Fatimids. Some remaining Kharijites can, however, still be found in eastern Algeria, western Libya, and Tunisia’s Djerba Peninsula.

The Fatimid Dynasty

Founded by Abu Muhammad Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi bi-Allah al-Shii from al-Yemen and Ubayd Allah from Syria, the Fatimid dynasty emerged in the Maghreb, with the support of the Kutama Berbers from what is now eastern Algeria. The Fatimid dynasty was a branch of the Shiism, Abu Muhammad Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi bi-Allah being a descendant of Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, hence the name of the movement. The Kutama Berbers welcomed the founders’ rejection of the caliphate in Baghdad and joined their cause. Eager to expand their territory, the Fatimid movement attacked the Aghlabid rulership repeatedly, increasing the instability in Ifriqiya. In 909 the Fatimids conquered the city of Kairouan and forced the evacuation of the palace at Raqadda, and almost simultaneously captured the Rustamid Kingdom.

The Fatimids’ capital, Mahdia, was built on Ifriqiya’s east coast and was named after the Mahdi (‘the rightly guided one’, a religious title) and bi-Allah (rightly guided by God), as Abu Muhammad Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi bi-Allah was called. The Fatimids derived legitimacy from two sources: their direct links to the Prophet Muhammad and the title of caliph bestowed on the first ruler. Many Sunnis nevertheless fiercely opposed the expansion of the Fatimids into Ifriqiya, including Kairouan, as the Fatimids’ Shiite traditions were strongly at odds with the then dominant teachings of the Maliki school. The harsh taxation scheme of the Fatimids was particularly unpopular amongst the Sunni population. Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi’s death was the occasion of a large-scale Kharijite attack against the Fatimids, who were now ruled by the son of Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi. This led, in the mid-10th century, to the latter’s defeat in Mahdia, but the Fatimids eventually reasserted themselves in battle and successfully besieged the Kharijites.

Only under the reign of the fourth Fatimid caliph, al-Muizz, with his successful war policies and effective diplomacy, were the Fatimids able to establish a firm rule over North Africa and expand their territory. The Fatimid empire would, however, shift eastward in 968, with the conquest of Egypt, where the Fatimids founded their capital, Cairo (al-Qahira, in Arabic). There they also established al-Azhar Mosque, which would become the main centre of Sunni Islam. In 973, the Fatimid caliph al-Muizz moved from Ifriqiya to Egypt, where he reigned until 1171. The Fatimids, for some time the predominant Islamic power, would never return to Ifriqiya. The Kutama Berbers, exhausted by their conflict with the Fatimids, would gradually disintegrate as a distinct identity. Ifriqiya eventually came under the rule of Berber vassals. The first ruler was Buluggin ibn Ziri, founder of the Zirid dynasty. While the Berber vassals initially governed under the aegis of the Fatimid Shiite caliphate, they gained their independence in 1048. Towards the end of the 11th century, Ifriqiya was invaded by the Banu Hilal tribes, who weakened the Zirid dynasty significantly. Adding to the instability, Sicilian Normans captured the city of Mahdia in 1148.

The Almohads

The Almohads ruled in North Africa from 1130. Founded in Morocco by the Masmuda Berber Ibn Tumart, the Almohads followed a puritanical version of Islamic law that preached the Unity of God. It rejected the Maliki Sunni school of Islam and all other Islamic schools. On Ibn Tumart’s death, Abd al-Mumin succeeded him as the first Almohad caliph, with the mission of creating a unified Islamic community in North Africa, to which end he invaded the eastern Maghreb. In the mid-12th century, he reached the Zirid empire, which was then seriously destabilized by the Norman invasion of Mahdia a few years earlier.

Benefiting from Ifriqiya’s instability, Abd al-Mumin occupied Tunis and defeated the Normans. Most of the Normans left Ifriqiya, although some stayed on as merchants. Abd al-Mumin continued his quest for territory and eventually captured Tripoli. For the first time, the Maghreb was united under an authority of local origin. The strength of the Almohads, their wealth, and the excellent reputation of their army led England’s King John to investigate this influential Maghreb power in order to determine whether the Almohads had designs on the English territory of Aquitaine, north of the Pyrenees.

In the end, however, the Almohads did not have the necessary human and material resources to administer and defend their far-flung empire. Only two decades later, the Banu Ghaniya, who saw themselves as the heirs of the Almoravids, began a revolt in the Balearic Islands. The rebellion reached Ifriqiya in 1184 and destabilized the region for the next five decades.

The Hafsid Dynasty

The Almohad empire was succeeded in 1230 by the Hafsid dynasty, which lasted until 1574. The Hafsids rejected the authority of the Almohads, claiming that it was they themselves who embodied the legacy of Ibn Tumart, the founder of the Almohads. During his lifetime, Ibn Tumart founded the Group of Ten, consisting of the closest adherents of the Almohads. One influential member of this group was Umar Abu Hafs al-Hintati, whose son Umar al-Hintati was the governor of Ifriqiya province from 1207 until his death in 1221. The son of Umar al-Hintati, Abu Zakariya, became governor of Gabes and later of Tunis.

Following disagreements with the Almohads, Abu Zakariya declared the independence of the Hafsids, granting himself the title of amir. During the subsequent years, Abu Zakariya took the cities of Ifriqiya, as well as Algiers in the west and Tripolitania in the east. The Hafsids concentrated their rule on coastal regions, leaving the inland regions to the Berbers. Soon the Hafsids’ supremacy in the region was officially recognized by neighbouring territories, such as Morocco and al-Andalus. In 1259, Abu Zakariya’s son, al-Mustansir, officially became the caliph of the Islamic world, after the fall of Bagdad in 1258. Although only three years later he had to pass on the title to a rival, the Hafsids remained a significant regional power. Under the Hafsid dynasty, the Maliki school became once more the central school of law in the region, but it was being changed and partially liberalized from within. Local custom was accepted as part of the legal framework. In Kairouan, for example, marriage contracts were redesigned to accommodate women’s rights, prohibiting husbands from taking more than one wife. The Islamic concept of maslaha (public interest) opened up Islamic law to interpretations that took account of the community’s particular circumstances and needs, a development that has shaped Tunisia up to the present.

The Hafsid dynasty guaranteed relative prosperity through the increase in regional trade, especially between the Sahara and the Sudan and with the Mediterranean countries, including the Europeans, with whom the Hafsids exchanged ambassadors. Practices and laws were developed throughout the region to regulate trade. Shipping practices were improved to ensure efficient sea trade, and Tunis, Mahdia, Gabes, and Djerba became the most important ports in what is now Tunisia. Islamic law was enriched and extended in order to guarantee moral issues and regulated trading through, for example, enhanced security in the market place, the principles of fair dealing, and the supervision of important business practices.

Nevertheless, beginning in the mid-14th century, the region faced significant economic difficulties, which stemmed from factors such as increasing problems in its Sahara trade. The Hafsids’ influence was also threatened by regional power struggles. In 1270, during the eighth crusade, Hafsid relations with Europe worsened when King Louis IX of France attempted to take Tunis. In the mid-13th century, the rising power of Morocco, at that time ruled by the Marinids of Fez, threatened the Hafsid dynasty; Morocco twice captured Tunis briefly. In the end, though, it was internal conflict amongst the Hafsids – and a war between the Turks and Spaniards – that led to the dynasty’s decline. The Hafsid rulers became so weak that they were little more than helpless spectators in the face of foreign intervention: the Turkish conquest of Tunis in 1574 brought the Hafsid dynasty to an end.

The Ottomans of Ifriqiya

The two world powers – the Spanish and Ottoman empires – fought over control of North Africa, including Ifriqiya, in the 16th century. In the 15th century, the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople and the Balkans and early in the 16th century they took Syria and Egypt. They then looked towards the eastern Mediterranean for possible further expansion of their empire. At the beginning of the 16th century, Spain had already occupied several strategic places on the Mediterranean, including the cities of Tripoli, Bougie (Béjaïa), Mers al-Kebir, and Oran, and it had made treaties with other cities, such as Algiers and Tunis. Located close to Tunis, Spain would eventually also take over the port of La Goulette. Spain’s occupation of several strategic positions in the Mediterranean and greater Africa encouraged the Ottomans to expand to North Africa to challenge Spanish supremacy in the region. The Ottomans posed a greater threat than Spain to the rulers of the Hafsid dynasty, despite the fact that many Arab Muslims and religious scholars preferred Islamic rule to that by a Christian power. Ottoman rule in North Africa was launched by the brothers Oruç and Hızır (Barbarossa), who came to Tunis as commanders of the Ottoman corsairs, privateers and pirates operating from North Africa. By 1510, the brothers had prospered so much that they decided to set up their own independent base, and they moved to La Goulette and Djerba. Soon after their arrival, they began to make deals with the Hafsids to share the profits of the corsairs.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the two brothers moved to what is now Algeria with the intention of conquering Algiers. At that time, the Spanish ruled Algeria, and, although they did not control the city of Algiers militarily, they held the port from occupied Penon Island. Soon after entering Algeria, the older brother, Oruç, was killed in an attempt to conquer Tlemcen. Barbarossa then conquered Algiers. In the following years, Barbarossa became very popular, having won several battles at sea, for which the Ottoman sultan granted him the title of Pasha of the navy. Barbarossa took Tunis in 1534 and was increasingly busied with developments outside North Africa. Ottoman rule over Ifriqiya would, however, be strengthened again in 1556, when Dragut or Turgut, a corsair who ruled Tripoli, attacked Tunisia and in 1558 entered its holiest city, Kairouan. Attacks from the west soon followed, and in 1569 Uluç Ali, Barbarossa’s successor in Algiers, took Tunis, the capital of the Hafsid dynasty.

While the 1569 capture of Tunis was challenged by Spain – the Spaniards took the city in 1573 – Uluç Ali in the following years began to assert himself over Ifriqiya. To demonstrate his supremacy, he imprisoned the last ruler of the Hafsid dynasty. In 1581, the Ottomans entered into a truce with Spain, which eased relations between the powers and divided their rule in North Africa, with the Ottomans ruling Ifriqiya until the 19th century.

During the following years, the Ottomans were the world’s leading Islamic nation; their sultan held the title of caliph. Ottoman rule strongly influenced Tunisian cultural and legal history. For example, Ottoman imperial law was based not only on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) but also on jurisprudence stemming from the Roman-Byzantine era and the customs and traditions of the Ottomans and Mongol empires. The Ottomans favoured the Hanafi school over the Tunisian Maliki school, but some Maliki jurists were still allowed to pass judgments.

The Ottoman Turkish language increasingly influenced the business elite and writers in Tunisia and accentuated linguistic divisions in Tunisia, by elevating Arabic over Berber, a development that can be clearly seen in modern-day Tunisia.

The Ottomans were initially welcomed in urban areas, as they were perceived as promoting the stability of the cities, but things were very different in rural areas, where the Turkish elite was considered dominating and aloof. The Turks never managed efficiently to control and regulate the economy of the countryside. Stability under the Ottomans was constantly threatened from the outside as well as from within Turkish circles. A pasha became governor of Ifriqiya province in 1587, and directly under him was the so-called bey of Tunisia.

In 1591, turmoil emerged in the Turkish army, and the dey – the title of a new military commander – became the ruler of Tunis. In the beginning, his authority was limited to the capital and few other cities. Under Uthman Dey and Yusuf Dey, his son-in-law, Tunisia enjoyed relative prosperity and stability. Construction, including of mosques and fortresses, and other public projects were financed by the treasury. Various interest groups emerged that would eventually challenge Yusuf Dey’s authority.

These groups eventually supported the Turkish beylik   (the territory under the bey), then held by the Muradids. The founder of this bey dynasty, Murad, a Corsican, gained a great reputation, for his success, for example, in suppressing rebellious tribes. This led the Ottoman sultan to grant him the title of Pasha, which bestowed on Murad legitimacy and dignity and contributed to the gradual decrease, in the 1670s, of the authority of the dey. The Muradid beys, however, were torn by internal divisions that led Algerian forces to enter Tunisia, where they remained for several years. The shift in power from the deys to the beys was accompanied by a changing economic policy, due in part to the decrease in corsair income resulting from European pressure. Agricultural commerce increased, as the urban areas became increasingly integrated, but the Tunisian elite of ruling authorities and businessmen gained more from trade than did other social groups, sharpening social divisions.

Husaynid Beys

Al-Husayn I ibn Ali, an officer in the Ottoman cavalry, took power in 1705, his military having taken part in beating back the Algerian invasion of Tunisia. Al-Husayn ibn Ali’s close connections and solidarity with Tunisian tribes and religious authorities helped him stand up against the dey, who was also seeking authority over the country. Al-Husayn ibn Ali strove to gain popularity by appointing Maliki religious scholars and jurists instead of those of the Hanafi school, who had generally been favoured during Ottoman rule, and by combining force and cooperation to secure the loyalty of Berber tribes. He also launched public-works projects, such as the building of schools and mosques, in order to increase his legitimacy. The relative stability of his regime was, however, challenged in 1735, when his nephew Ali and son Muhammad engaged in a dispute regarding the succession to al-Husayn ibn Ali. This resulted in a five-year civil war, which ended with the victory of Ali. This victory was, however, reversed sixteen years later, and Muhammad became the final successor of the Husaynid beys.

European Influence

During the rule of the Husaynid beys, Tunisia initially experienced a period of prosperity, especially during the period of the French Revolution, which led to economic shortages in Europe that were partially covered by Tunisian exports. But, beginning in the 1820s, the Tunisian economy declined. In the early 19th century, Tunisia had ceased its corsair raids, under an agreement with British and French authorities. In addition, various European powers began to export products to Tunisia, changing domestic prices, often to the disadvantage of Tunisian merchants and the ruling authorities. Domestic traders could not compete with many European products, making it more difficult for them to sell their goods and services. Increasing European influence culminated in 1881, when France established a protectorate over Tunisia that would last until 1956. The Husaynid beys continued in office under the protectorate, but their role was largely ceremonial.

The French Protectorate

Russia declared war on the Turks in 1877, leading to the eventual decline of the Ottoman Empire, and a decade later the European powers met at the 1887 Congress of Berlin to discuss the future of the territories that had belonged to the now defeated Ottoman Empire. It was decided that Italy would get what is now Libya, while Britain asked for European support to contain rebellions in its occupied Egypt. France was promised supremacy over Tunisia, a country popular amongst the colonial powers for its good port facilities and its strategically important location on the Algerian border and close to Sicily. In the beginning, France attempted to reach an agreement with the ruling bey over its occupation of Tunisia, but negotiations failed. The raid by the Tunisian Khroumir tribe into French Algeria in 1881 gave France a pretext to invade Tunisia. Supported by an army of 36,000, the ruling authority of the French was quickly established throughout the country.

In May 1881, Bey Muhammad III al-Sadiq was forced to sign the Bardo Treaty, which established French supremacy over Tunisia. Following the signing of the treaty, uprisings occurred throughout the country – the new rulers and the bey’s apparent submission to them were not approved of by the broad population. The La Marsa Convention (1883) established a French protectorate over the country, ensuring Tunisia’s formal independence. The bey was allowed to remain in office, and existing bilateral treaties remained in force. Yet the authority of the French resident-general was unparalleled: he was acting Prime Minister and had charge of Tunisia’s armed forces and finances and was empowered to restructure judicial and financial matters. The beys would soon become no more than a means to enact and legitimize French decisions.

Through a combination of laws and measures, the French brought Tunisia effectively under their control by the end of the 19th century. The beys were pressured to appoint to key government posts, such as Prime Minister, loyal people who did not oppose the French, while those who supported the 1881 anti-French rebellion were dismissed. The resident-general enacted executive degrees that were then publicly proclaimed by the bey, effectively diminishing the latter’s authority over the country. In order to control local authorities more effectively, the French allowed so-called caïds, provincial governors  (from qaid, ruler), and cheikhs to keep their positions, knowing that France was thus de facto buying their loyalty. The French authority also appointed ‘civil controllers’, whose job was to supervise the provincial governors and cheikhs. When, at the end of the 19th century, the Tunisian secret service was brought under control, French supremacy seemed insurmountable. Economically, France made it a priority to decrease the debts of the Tunisian state by, among other things, supervising the collection of taxes. This resulted in the eventual stabilization of Tunisia’s finances. Judicially, French courts and law were established, which dealt with cases of foreign and French residents, as well as cases between Europeans and Tunisians. Islamic courts continued to function alongside the French legal system, dealing with cases between Tunisians. The French also reformed Tunisian communications and education. All schools, including Islamic ones, were under the director of public education, who was a Frenchmen. In order to decrease the educational gap between French and Tunisians, a standard educational system was introduced. Franco-Arab schools were founded, in which instruction was in French and Arabic was taught as a second language. The most prestigious school was to become Hayreddin Pasha’s Sadiki College, whose competitive admissions and high educational standards almost guaranteed its graduates high political or economic positions.

Destour Party

The French effectively controlled the Tunisian state, despite its status as a protectorate, and occasional nationalist revolts against the occupiers had little impact at first. The first major attempt to form alternative political platforms was not made until the interwar period, when the Destour Constitutional Liberal Party (or Parti libéral constitutionnel), commonly known as Destour party was established and named for the Tunisian Constitution of 1861. When, in 1920, the Destour party asked for the formation of a constitutional form of government granting all Tunisians the same rights, the leader of the Destour, Abdelaziz Thâalbi, was arrested by the French. By the use of such restrictive measures and some superficial reforms introduced to appease the opposition, the opponents of the government were, for a while, effectively controlled.

Neo-Destour Party

A lawyer, Habib Bourguiba, left the Destour Party in 1934 and, with some of his colleagues, established the Neo-Destour (New Constitutional Liberal Party or Nouveau Parti libéral constitutionnel) party, which was more assertive vis-à-vis the French. The Neo-Destour Party would soon replace the Destour Party and attract mass support in Tunisia. Sensing its importance, the French responded to the newly created party with fierce repression, arresting its leaders, but this only triggered more party activism.

The end of World War II increased demands for Tunisian independence, and the French, pressured by international forces and Tunisians, eventually conceded. With the prospect of approaching independence, frictions emerged within the Neo-Destour party, between Salah Ben Youssef, a pan-Arab leader and the secretary general of the party, and Habib Bourguiba, the party’s leader, who advocated a Western style of life. Backed by the Europeans, Bourguiba became Tunisia’s first President, following independence in 1957. His rival, Ben Youssef, went into exile, where he would be assassinated in 1961.

Further Reading

Fanack’s Tunisia country file provides a comprehensive overview about Tunisia, its history, politics, culture, economy...
After the success of the Tunisian revolution, Tunisia was able to live a democratic transition of power through three pr...
The Tunisian culture is a synthesis of especially Arab and Berber elements, which come to expression in, among others, i...

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