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History & Background

Geography: Officially known as the Republic of Tunisia (Al Jamhuriyah at-Tunisiyah in Arabic), Tunisia lies at the top of the African continent, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea along its northern and easternmost sides. One hundred thirty-seven kilometers southwest of Sicily, Tunisia is two hours by air from Paris or Geneva and only 45 minutes by air from Rome. With Algeria to the west and south and Libya to the southeast, Tunisia has 1,298 kilometers of coastline. Measuring 163,610 square kilometers—slightly larger than the U.S. state of Georgia—Tunisia is the smallest of the North African countries. In terms of history and culture, however, Tunisia is arguably the richest. Strategically located at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East and just a short distance from Europe, Tunisia has long been the scene of interactions among countless tribes and peoples of Africa, Asia, and Europe as they have traded with each other, drawn from and sometimes conquered each other's civilizations, and built their personal and collective fortunes.

Cultural Background & History: Tunisia is home to an impressive array of cultural traditions and archaeological treasures left by the great variety of peoples who have lived in this northern corner of Africa over the course of time—the indigenous Berbers and other African tribes and the invaders and traders who arrived over the centuries: Vandals, Byzantines, Phoenicians, Romans, Jews, Arabs, Andalusians and Spaniards, Ottoman Turks, and the French. With a population 98 percent Arab Sunni Muslim, about 1 percent European Christian, and about 1 percent Jewish and other, Tunisia is one of the few countries in North Africa or the Middle East today where people of different religions live in mutual tolerance and respect. In recent years the Tunisian government has taken special precautions to protect Tunisia's Jewish population, which by the year 2000 had diminished to about 1 percent of its size in 1948 due to emigrations mainly to Israel and France after incidents of violence in Tunisia associated with Arab-Jewish clashes in the Middle East. Despite these periodic setbacks to ethnic peace that occurred as recently as 1985, contemporary Tunisia has a reputation for successfully accommodating the interests, needs, and tastes of the diverse peoples who visit and live in the country.

Archaeological treasures found in the northeastern Cap Bon area of Tunisia just across from Sicily at Kerkouane and Kelibia, two ancient Punic (Phoenician) towns, indicate that highly developed civilizations had taken root along Tunisia's northeastern coast centuries before the birth of Christ. The Phoenician city of Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia's capital city) was founded in 814 B.C. by Queen Dido, also called Elyssa, sister of the Phoenician King Pygmalion of Tyre, an ancient city on what is now the Lebanese coast. Richly endowed with architectural treasures and remnants of utensils and pottery used by Phoenicians from all classes, the Punic ruins at Carthage, Kelibia, and Kerkouane are elegant reminders that well-developed civilizations have existed in Tunisia for millennia. Despite—or perhaps because of—the wealth and care with which these cities were built and the various occupations practiced by their peoples, the Punic cities were destroyed by Roman invaders during three very bloody wars waged by the Phoenicians against Rome in the three centuries before Christ. Just before the start of the Christian era, the Romans established their first colony on the African continent in "Ifriqiya," their name for present-day Tunisia.

The Roman colony of Ifriqiya flourished from 146 B.C. until 439 A.D., with an economy based on trade and agriculture. (Sections of the 90-mile Roman aqueduct that once carried water from Zaghouan to urbanites in the Roman-rebuilt Carthage are still visible today in the countryside outside Tunis.) The Romans, susceptible themselves to conquest, were overtaken in 439 A.D. by Vandals in boats that were pressed out of Spain. Less than a century after the Vandal conquest, Carthage was retaken in 533 A.D. by the Byzantines, Christian invaders from Emperor Justinian's Constantinople, the city destined to later become Istanbul, Turkey. The Byzantines, too, lasted only a century in Tunisia, succumbing to an Arab Muslim invasion at Sbeitla in 647.

The years 647-698 A.D. marked the start of the Arab Muslim era in Tunisia. The city of Kairouan in the central Sahel region was founded in 670, and Carthage was taken by the Arabs in 698. Islam continued to expand over the next several centuries throughout what is now Tunisia with the establishment of the Dynasty of the Aghlabides and the construction of the Zitouna (Olive) Mosque in Tunis. Kairouan became the political and intellectual center of the Maghreb (North Africa) at this time. The Aghlabides were followed by the Fatimide and Ziride Dynasties from 909-1159, and from 1159-1230 the Almohades unified the countries of the Maghreb with the Andalusian Muslims in what is now Spain.

In 1236 the Hafsides, vassals of the Almohades, declared their independence from their rulers and established a new dynasty in Tunisia that lasted until 1574, when the Ottoman Turks annexed Tunisia to their empire. Tunisia remained under Turkish control until 1705 when the Husseinite Dynasty was founded, which lasted until Tunisia became a republic on July 25, 1957.

During the late nineteenth century as the European colonial powers spread through Africa and decided among themselves who would control which African territories, Tunisia fell to the French, who marked the consolidation of their efforts to control Tunisia with a treaty forced upon the local authorities on May 12, 1881 making Tunisia a French protectorate—essentially, a colony of France. Strong Tunisian resistance to domination by the French was apparent throughout the 75 years of French colonization. The anti-colonial struggle heightened with the founding of the Destour party in 1920 and was re-energized by the neo-Destour Party, founded in 1934.

As the countries of Africa began to declare and win their independence from the European colonizers during the post-World War II period, Tunisia was one of the first to declare independence. On March 20, 1956, Tunisia became independent of France, and one year later, on July 25, 1957, the country proclaimed itself a republic and Habib Bourguiba the first President. Tunisia's first republican constitution was adopted nearly two years later, on June 1, 1959. Four years afterward on October 15, 1963, the French evacuated the northern coastal city of Bizerte, the last foreign military base in Tunisia. Bourguiba remained President until November 7, 1987, when in a constitutional change Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali succeeded him in office, Bourguiba having been declared senile by several doctors and thus incompetent to continue to serve. Ben Ali was invested as President of the Republic on November 7, 1987, by the Tunisian parliament to serve out the rest of former President Bourguiba's term; Bourguiba quietly retired, taking up residence in his home city of Monastir on the eastern Mediterranean coast for the next eleven years until his natural death in the year 2000. April 2, 1989, marked the first legislative and presidential elections under Ben Ali, during which the Head of State was officially elected President by the Tunisian electorate. On March 20, 1994 and again on October 24, 1999, Ben Ali was re-elected President of the Republic of Tunisia.

Social Conditions: Much of Tunisia's relatively small population of 9.5 million people lives in the northern and eastern coastal cities, towns, and rural areas and the central Sahel region. The western mountain region is somewhat more sparsely populated, and even fewer Tunisians live in the southern half of the country where the Sahara desert begins, although even in the desert south settlements and towns have flourished for centuries. Approximately 65 percent of Tunisia's population lived in urban areas in 1999. With a population density of only 60 persons per square kilometer, Tunisia has made significant progress in overcoming the challenge of educating a rural population that has included sufficient numbers of nomadic herders and small farmers scattered throughout the countryside to have made the building of accessible schools genuinely problematic. By 1995 approximately two-thirds of Tunisians age 15 and older were literate (able to read and write)—78.6 percent of the male population and 54.6 percent of girls and women. Literacy since that time has continued to increase. In 1999, approximately 80 percent of Tunisian males and almost 60 percent of Tunisian females ages 15 and up were literate. Youth literacy was significantly higher, with 92 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds literate in 1998. By the late 1990s the female adult literacy rate was only 70 percent of the male rate, however, as women's equality with men in terms of school enrollments and completion rates has been a very recent phenomenon, especially in the rural areas. Female participation in government and business is steadily increasing. Women's heightened status and involvement in the paid workforce is reflected in the fact that in 1997, more than 12 percent of administrators and managers were women and more than 35 percent of professional and technical workers were women.

The Tunisian population, estimated at 9,593,402 in July 2000, had a growth rate that year of only 1.17 percent, the result of very consciously organized family-planning programs in the last decades of the twentieth century that began during the presidency of Bourguiba, Tunisia's much-beloved first President. Bourguiba did much to emancipate women and strengthen women's rights in Tunisia. In 1961 the Tunisian government introduced a policy supporting the use of birth control, and in 1967 abortions were legalized. Contraception prevalence (the percent of married women between 15 and 49 regularly using contraception) was 60 percent by the late 1990s. The total fertility rate in Tunisia in 1999 was 2.5 (i.e., a woman bearing children for her entire childbearing years at the current fertility rate would produce 2.5 children). Approximately 3 of every 10 Tunisians in 2000 was 14-years-old or younger while nearly twothirds of the population was between 15 and 64 years of age and about 6 percent of Tunisia's population was 65 or older.

Far better off than most other African countries in terms of pre-natal care and infant and maternal health, Tunisia had an infant-mortality rate of 24 per 1000 live births in 1999, half the rate for the North African/Middle Eastern region. In 1999 the under-five-years child-mortality rate was 30 per 1000, less than half the rate of 63 for the North African/Middle Eastern region. The average life span of Tunisians in the year 2000 was 73.7 years (72.1 for men, 75.4 for women). However, with 807 doctors per one million Tunisian citizens, Tunisia still faces formidable challenges to improving its public health system to the point where all citizens of Tunisia stand a relatively equal chance of receiving high-quality healthcare. The methods used by Tunisian doctors may parallel, and in some cases surpass, those used by doctors in the West, since Tunisian doctors have benefited from substantial development assistance and medical training programs abroad as well as from medical education in Tunisia. However, this shortage of physicians means that even adequate care may be unavailable to the many patients who in the late 1990s could find themselves sitting for hours (sometimes all day, even with appointments) at the few specialized health centers that treated patients with chronic and potentially fatal diseases (e.g., the Institut Salah Azaiz in Tunis, recognized as North Africa's premier cancer treatment center by the World Health Organization). The Tunisian government acknowledges the need to expand the quality and breadth of healthcare, including through private initiatives, so that all Tunisians, regardless of social status, will be able to receive the care they require. The question of where sufficient resources are to be found to finance such an expansion remains unanswered.

Economic Status: For centuries the Tunisian economy was primarily agricultural. However, the large service sector that developed in late-twentieth-century Tunisia, much of it attached to the vigorously growing tourist industry, led to a restructuring of the Tunisian workforce, where 23 percent of the labor force was employed in industry in 1995, about 55 percent in service jobs, and only 22 percent in agriculture. By the late 1990s the Tunisian economy enjoyed an annual growth rate of roughly 6.2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), and Tunisia's annual per capita income in 1999 was about $2,100. Despite substantial exports of food and agricultural products, textiles, leather products, and petroleum, gas, and derivatives, Tunisia required an infusion of US$148 million in overseas development assistance in 1998 to meet its population's basic needs and the demands of Tunisia's rapidly developing and increasingly privatizing economic sector. Nonetheless, Tunisia's poverty rate dropped remarkably from 40 percent in 1960 to only 7 percent by 2000, thanks to a combination of diligent efforts by Tunisia's government to eradicate poverty, an improving economic climate, and substantial international development assistance. Rural poverty continues to be a challenge to overcome, however. In 1995 some 13.9 percent of the rural population lived in poverty compared with 3.6 percent in urban areas, and over 70 percent of impoverished Tunisians were rural, in part due to the challenge of spreading schools to the rural areas, a situation largely overcome by the start of the new millennium.

The World Bank summarized Tunisia's economic situation in 2000 by noting that Tunisia had followed a state-led plan of economic development until the mid-1980s, emphasizing human-resource development and gender equity. By 1986 Tunisia faced growing financial imbalances, a poor harvest, and the collapse of oil prices. With President Ben Ali's accession to power in 1987, Tunisia revised its economic strategy and began implementing a series of economic reforms supported by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that were designed to maintain a stable macroeconomic structure, improve resource allocation by gradually liberalizing trade, investments, and prices, and free up private-sector resources. While the Tunisian government continued to maintain certain economic controls, state subsidies were reduced and liberalization efforts were expanded in the 1990s, and the reforms led to gradual but steady improvements in the Tunisian economy.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceTunisia - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education