Tunisia is bordered by Algeria on the west, the Mediterranean on the north and east, and Libya on the southeast. It includes the Kerkenna Islands off the east coast and the island of Djerba in the southeast. In 1993, Algeria and Tunisia settled a border dispute that had been under negotiation since 1983.
Geography and climate
Tunisia's landmass comprises 59,984 square miles; the total area is 63,170 square miles. The country has three distinct regions: the northern Tell or high plains; the central steppes; and the arid south, characterized by date palm oases and numerous shatts (salt marshes), the largest of which is the Shatt al-Jarid.
The Dorsale massif, an extension of the Atlas Mountains, limits rainfall on the central steppes. The highest point in the chain is Mount Chambi (1,544 meters; 5,066 feet). The mountains enter Tunisia northwest of Fernania and veer northeast across Cape Bon before plummeting into the Mediterranean near El Haouaria.
One of Tunisia's few perennial rivers, the Medjerda, rises in Algeria, crosses northern Tunisia, and empties into the Gulf of Tunis. Most other Tunisian streams, except the Miliana, dry up during the summer. Since antiquity the Medjerda valley has contained Tunisia's richest farmland.
The central steppes are high near the border with Algeria and low near the coast, then merge into the Sahel (coast), an area lying between Hammamet (near Cape Bon) and Sfax. Farther south lies the Sahara.
The north and the Sahel are the most urbanized and most densely populated regions of Tunisia. Tunis is the largest city and the national capital. The second largest city, Sfax, has half as many inhabitants as greater Tunisia (2 million). Other important cities are Qairawan (an important religious center and the first Arab town in the country, founded in 670 c.e.), Sousse, Gafsa, and Bizerte.
Tunisia's natural resources include phosphate mines near Gafsa and a developing natural gas and petroleum industry. Foreign companies compete for oil concessions and continue to explore for new fields. Tunisia also produces small quantities of iron ore, lead, zinc, and salt. The Sahel region is a rich olive-growing area, and the southern oases contain extensive date-palm groves.
Northern Tunisia has a Mediterranean climate with cool, damp winters and warm, humid summers. Precipitation declines south of the Dorsale along the coast and is minimal in the interior steppes and Sahara, where winter days are mild but nights can be bitterly cold. Summer daytime temperatures in the interior steppes and southern desert can be very high. Temperatures at Tunis range from 6°C (43°F) to 33°C (91°F). Precipitation averages 60 inches in the north and 8 inches in the Sahara.
People, language, and religion
Tunisia's 8.4 million people are concentrated in the north, in the Sahel, and in regional urban centers such as Qairawan and Gafsa. More than half the population lives in the northern Tell and the Sahel, on about 20 percent of Tunisia's total land surface. About 53 percent (4,452,000) of Tunisians live in cities. Population density is 133 persons per square mile. Family planning programs in the 1970s and 1980s managed to lower the population growth rate from over 3 percent to about 2.1 percent by 1992; 38 percent of Tunisians were under age fifteen in that year. Many Tunisians engage in agricultural pursuits, but a growing number are in the tourist industry, humanities and professions, commercial sector, and government.
Tunisia's ethnic base is primarily mixed Arab-Berber or Arabized Berber. There are a few Berber speakers in isolated regions of the south. A tiny Jewish minority still exists; most Tunisian Jews left the country after 1957. Some European Christians live in Tunisia, primarily in the capital.
Tunisia's national language is Arabic (the first language of at least 98 percent of the people); French is the major second language as well as the dominant language of commerce and education. Although the print and audiovisual media use standard Arabic, most Tunisians speak their own dialect, which has three variations: an urban dialect, a rural village and small-town dialect, and a Bedouin dialect. Knowledge of the Egyptian dialect has been increasing since the 1970s because of Egypt's domination of the Arab cinema and television soap operas.
Islam is the official state religion. At least 98 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims. The island of Djerba harbors many Khariji Muslims. In the 1980s the Islamic Tendency Movement (Mouvement de Tendance Islamique; MTI) was formed, with Rached Ghannushi and Abdelfattah Mourou as its ideological leaders. Observance of Islamic rituals increased considerably in Tunisia during the 1980s and early 1990s. In recognition of this fact, and to thwart the designs of Islamists, the government sought to control all mosque appointments and to encourage moderation in religion. The government has grown more outwardly Islamic, following such traditional practices as waiting for the new moon before announcing the start of the Ramadan fast, and the firing of cannon to herald the first and last days of Ramadan.
Tunisia's economy has improved due to good harvests (since 1990), economic restructuring, a growing manufacturing industry, a developing oil and gas sector, remittances from expatriates (an estimated 400,000 Tunisians work overseas), and a healthy tourist trade. Economic growth since 1988 has averaged about 4.2 percent, peaking at 8.6 percent in 1992. Unemployment ranges from the official 15 percent to a high of 20 to 50 percent in informal sectors of the economy. High rural unemployment has caused many young people to migrate
to urban centers in search of work, causing deterioration of public services and the taxing of city resources, especially in Tunis.
Tunisia's gross domestic product is about US$10 billion, and per capita income is about US$1,235. Agriculture comprises some 16 percent of the gross domestic product, and industry accounts for about 38 percent. The workforce is estimated at 2,250,000, with 34 percent in industry, 26 percent in agriculture, and 40 percent in services. Women make up just under 25 percent of the workforce (probably a much higher percentage of the rural "informal" sector). Labor unions have organized between 11 and 20 percent of the working class. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens; UGTT), headed by Ismail Sahbani, collaborates closely with the government and the Tunisian Union of Industrialists, Businessmen, and Artisans (Union Tunisienne des Industrialistes, Compagnies, et Artisans; UTICA).
Tunisia's geographic openness has made its history one of periodic invasions. Berber peoples settled the country in the fifth and fourth millennia b.c.e. The first outside civilization to make an impact came from Phoenicia, when émigrés from Tyre founded Carthage in 814 b.c.e. Carthage developed a maritime empire in the western Mediterranean and in the third century b.c.e. confronted Rome for control of the western Mediterranean. Three conflicts ensued that came to be known collectively as the Punic Wars. In the final battle of the Second Punic War (Zama, 202 b.c.e.), Rome's Scipio Africanus defeated Carthage's Hannibal. Rome now supplanted Carthage as mistress of the Mediterranean and dominated North Africa until the Vandal invasion of 429 c.e. Following the Vandals, the Byzantines in 533 extended their hegemony over Tunisia.
The most enduring historical legacy for Tunisia derives from the Arab invasions of the late seventh century. From 643 until 698, the Arabs struggled to defeat the Berbers and impose the Arabic language and Islam upon them. Qairawan was the capital for most medieval Tunisian dynasties. Founded in 670, it survived for centuries as the main garrison town and political and religious center.
The Aghlabid dynasty (800–909) ruled from Qairawan. The Shiʿite Fatimids (909–969) moved their capital to Mahdiya, then Egypt, founding a new imperial capital at Cairo. They left their lieutenants, the Zirids, in charge of North Africa. In 1049 the Zirids broke with the Fatimids who, in retaliation, unleashed the Banu Hilal nomads. They disrupted the countryside, intensified the renomadization of the steppes, and introduced a new dialect. Their defeat at Haidaran in 1052 and the sack of Qairawan in 1057 led the Zirids to move to Mahdiya.
The Almoravids, a Tuareg puritanical religious group, swept out of the western Sahara in the eleventh century. In the middle of the twelfth century, the Berber Almohads came down from the High Atlas and extended their domains into Tunisia.
By 1250, Almohad power had waned to such a degree that a successor dynasty, the Hafsids, emerged in Tunisia to rule for the next three centuries with Tunis as their capital. In 1574, an Ottoman Turkish fleet under Sinan Pasha landed forces at La Goulette (now Halq al-Wadi). Following a brief siege, those forces seized Tunis and laid the foundations for Ottoman control that continued until the imposition of a protectorate by France in 1881. To collect taxes and to maintain security, the Ottomans established a rudimentary administration. Initially an Ottoman bulukbash (commander) was placed in charge of the janissary garrison. In 1590, rebel janissaries formed a government dominated by the deys, who ran the country through the diwan (council). After 1640, an important tax-collecting official, the bey, emerged, and the powerful Muradid family exercised considerable control over the government. During a civil war from 1702 to 1705, Ibrahim al-Sharif seized power. In 1705 an associate of al-Sharif, Husayn ibn Ali Turki, proclaimed himself bey of Tunis. In 1710 the Ottoman sultan officially recognized Husayn and legitimized his rule. The Husaynid dynasty ruled the country independently until 1881, and thereafter under France's control until 1956.
In the nineteenth century, the Husaynids accepted the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire while pursuing their own reform agendas and independent foreign policies vis-à-vis Europe. Misguided military reforms in the 1840s, financial mismanagement in the 1860s, and increasing pressures from Europe in the 1870s culminated in France's protectorate based on the treaty of Bardo (1881) and the La Marsa Convention (1883).
The protectorate authorities speeded up the economic development of Tunisia, built a physical infrastructure, reformed the educational system, and imposed a political administration. Simultaneously they heeded settler demands for land, sweeping aside informal tribal and village ownership agreements. Arabs were excluded from participation in politics.
Although there had been armed resistance to the French occupation from southern tribal elements, most of it was crushed by the end of 1883. The first stage of Tunisian nationalism was an intellectual elitist movement known as the Young Tunisians, which aimed to assimilate to the civilization of France so they could eventually rule their own country. A more serious stage in protonationalist agitation occurred just before and just after World War I in a movement led by Abd al-Aziz Thaalbi. The third stage came in the 1930s when a young lawyer, Habib Bourguiba, broke with the Destour Party and proclaimed the Neo-Destour.
World War II slowed the development of nationalism in Tunisia. After the war, however, Bourguiba followed a staged process, arguing that its cumulative effect would result in political independence. By late 1955, Algeria violently challenged France's rule through a war of national liberation. France therefore agreed to Tunisia's autonomy in 1955 and to its independence in March 1956. In 1957 the Republic of Tunisia proclaimed Bourguiba its first president.
In Tunisia's first decades of independence, continued dominance of the Neo-Destour, which became the Socialist Destour in 1964, and the government's antireligious attitude tarnished the nation's image. Police intimidated those who sought to chant the Qurʾan in public, often beating and imprisoning them. In protest, pious intellectuals organized the Society for the Preservation of the Qurʾan and, in the early 1980s, created the MTI.
Bourguiba's anti-Islam policies led to Zayn alAbidine Ben Ali's palace coup of 7 November 1987. Ben Ali tried to co-opt the Islamists for the promised elections of 1989. To demonstrate his piety, he appeared on television participating in Ramadan rites at al-Zaytuna mosque in Tunis. In the spring of 1989, however, Ben Ali hedged on his promise to recognize the MTI if they removed religious terminology from their name. As the April elections approached and MTI changed its name to the Renaissance party, the government refused to recognize it.
Ben Ali's regime considers the Islamists to be the major challenge to its survival, equating them with terrorists. Ben Ali announced in late 1993 that national elections would be held in March 1994. He promised that seats would be set aside for minority party candidates. Ben Ali then announced his candidacy for a second presidential term.
Tunisia's "regime of change" has tamed the Islamist movement for the moment, has modestly improved its human-rights and democratic credentials, and has continued economic restructuring and privatization. The economy is functioning reasonably well, tourism has rebounded dramatically, and the immediate prospects for the future appear good.