A nation of North Africa, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Algeria, and Libya. Phoenicia established colonies along the North African coast of modern Tunisia c. 1200 b.c. Carthage was founded in the eighth century b.c. and became the leading maritime power in the western Mediterranean Sea until the Punic Wars ended with its destruction by Rome in 146 b.c. The victorious Romans founded the Province of Africa, and their capital at Tunis became the center of an ambitious program of development aimed both at cities and agriculture.
Vandals occupied Tunisia in a.d. 439, but it was recaptured by the Byzantine Empire in 533–34. The province was drained by this struggle and was unable to repel the Islamic wave that swept over North Africa in the seventh century. Tunis fell in 647, and by 703 the entire country was under Muslim rule and was renamed Ifriqiya, the Arabic word for Africa. An inland capital at Kairouan became the center of a dynamic Arab state in the ninth century, which conquered Sicily. In 972 a Tunisian-based Fatimid dynasty conquered Egypt and moved to newly founded Cairo. From the 12th to 16th centuries Tunisia prospered, though Normans from Sicily briefly took most of its ports in the 12th century. Tunisia came under Moroccan influence in 1159 when it was incorporated into the Almohad Caliphate.
Regaining its independence after the Almohad rule collapsed, Tunisia prospered under the Hafsid dynasty until the 16th century, when it became a possession of the Ottoman Empire. Tunisia became famous as a Barbary State sponsoring Mediterranean piracy. In the 19th century Tunisia’s path closely paralleled Egypt’s, as ambitious beys (rulers) tried to modernize it.
In 1864 the country went bankrupt, and a commission formed by Great Britain, France, and Italy took financial control. In 1878 Great Britain gave France a free hand in Tunisia in exchange for French agreement to its occupation of Cyprus. France quickly established a protectorate, installed a colonial bureaucracy, and began massive development.
In the early 20th century nationalism began to stir in Tunisia. During the 1930s Habib Bourguiba became the leading spokesman for independence and was imprisoned several times by French authorities. Tunisia was controlled by Germany during World War II until 1943, when Free French rule was restored. With the end of the war the nationalists renewed their pressure for independence, but France refused to negotiate.
In 1952 Tunisia erupted into violence, and by 1954 France was ready to relinquish its hold. Independence was achieved on June 1, 1956, with Bourguiba in charge of forming a government under the nominal leadership of the bey. In 1957 Tunisia was declared a republic, and Bourguiba was elected president.
The country pursued a moderate political course, maintaining fairly close ties with France and the United States and rejecting the Arab militancy promoted by Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser. It maintained relations with the United States during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, but it condemned Egypt for its peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Tunis became the headquarters of the Arab League following Egypt’s expulsion from that group in the same year.
In 1987 Bourguiba was ousted in a coup by General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The new government restored diplomatic relations with Libya and signed a treaty of economic cooperation with the Maghreb nations of Libya, Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco. Ben Ali began repressing Islamic activists after their strong showing in the 1989 elections. In 1994, after banning the Islamic Al Nahda Party, Ben Ali was elected unopposed.
Ben Ali has continued to rule, running essentially unopposed in 1999 and 2004.