Tunisia is located on the northernmost tip of Africa. It borders the Mediterranean Sea and is flanked by Algeria and Libya. It has a total area of 163,610 sq km or 63,170 sq miles, which equates to an area slightly larger than Georgia. Tunisia has a Mediterranean climate and is temperate along the coast, but becomes hotter in the south towards the Sahara Desert. The country is mountainous to the north along the Atlas Mountains, while the rest of the country is low-lying, with plains and lush valleys. Tunisia is especially arable in the Sahel region, along its eastern coast. Some of the environmental issues the country faces include water pollution, limited natural fresh water resources, deforestation, desertification, and soil erosion. Tunisia has accepted several international agreements on topics such as environmental protection, marine toxic chemical dumping, and the climate change Kyoto Protocol, but lacks the means to implement many of these recommendations.
HISTORY & GOVERNMENT
Because of its strategic location the northernmost point of the African continent on the Mediterranean coast, Tunisia has been considered a great strategic location for centuries. Ancient inscriptions and rock art from the region suggests the indigenous population (Berber) were some of the first inhabitants. The seafaring Phoenicians took hold of the region in the 9th century BCE. According to legend, Queen Dido of the Phoenicians established the capital in Carthage in 814 BCE. She is most famous for her romance with Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid.
As the city of Carthage rose in power, it gained its independence from other Phoenician settlements. Starting in the 3rd century BCE, Carthage led a series of wars in what is known as the Punic Wars for regional control against the Roman Empire. Hannibal, a military commander of the Carthaginian army, led the particularly bloody Second Punic War from 218 to 210 BCE. This war was marked by Hannibal’s incredible crossing of the Alps with 80,000 men and a number of war elephants. Despite this daring offensive, Rome eventually conquered and annexed Carthage.
The region was subsequently conquered by the Vandals in the 5th century CE, the Byzantines in the 6thcentury, and finally the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries. Several Islamic dynasties successively ruled over Tunisia. It became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century until the French seized control of the area in 1881. The number of French colonists increased dramatically under the French protectorate to 144,000 by 1945.
In 1957, France granted Tunisia independence and it became a republic. Habib Bourguiba became the first president and led the country for three decades. He enacted many liberal and pro-Western reforms including compulsory and free education for ages 6 through 16, and women’s rights such as the right to vote and file for divorce. He also made the historic Jericho Speech in 1965 which supported a permanent peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on the recommendations of the United Nations. This speech marked the first time an Arab president spoke in favor of establishing peace with Israel.
On November 7, 1987, Bourguiba was judged to be medically incapable of running the country by Prime Minister Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and a team of doctors. He had been in poor health since the 1970s, and his mental capacity was put into question after he called for the immediate hanging of several prominent Islamists in the country. He was replaced by Ben Ali, who ruled for twenty-four years. In December 2010, protests broke out across the country in response to growing unemployment, food inflation, and lack of political freedom. The protests culminated in what has been identified as the Jasmine Revolution. This revolution was sparked on January 4, 2011, after a street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, carried out a public self-immolation to protest corrupt government practices. After a month of protests, public pressure drove President Ben Ali was driven into exile to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011, leaving his Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi at the head of an interim government. Following continued protests, he was replaced by Fouad Mebazaa, who had previously been serving as president of the Chamber of Deputies.
On December 12, 2011, the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia, a body elected to govern the country and draft a new constitution, elected Moncef Marzouki as the interim President of the Tunisian Republic. The new government has addressed some of the concerns of the Jasmine Revolution protests such as the length and terms of office, the authority of the legislature, and separation of powers, although areas of law and human rights remain unaddressed.
History & Government Resources
PEOPLE & LANGUAGE
The population of Tunisia is nearly 11 million, with an average life expectancy of 76 years. Most of the population is of Tamazight (Berber) or Arab descent (98%) and speaks Arabic, although there is a small Jewish and European community as well at about 1% of the population each. French is commonly used in major cities and in business settings. According to the CIA Fact Book, 67% of the population lives in urban areas, growing at a rate of 1.7% per year.
Population of Tunisia
Education in Tunisia has been a high priority of the federal government and is compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 16. The Tunisian education system is based off the French system which involves three cycles: primary, secondary, and higher education. Primary education lasts for nine years and is the only compulsory period of education for students. Students that elect to go to secondary education continue for four years, and students either prepare to enter college or the workforce. There are many free public universities for students to attend including the Ecole Polytechnique de Tunisie, the International University of Tunis, and the Université des Sciences de Tunis. These are all located in the capital of Tunis. In 2005-2006, there were 178 public institutions of higher education. According to the CIA Fact Book, the literacy rate approaches 79.1%, a high number compared to other countries in the region.
Health conditions have steadily improved and state owned health facilities and hospitals provide free services to all Tunisian citizens and residents. As of 2010, Tunisia maintains roughly 1.2 physicians per 1,000 people, about half the rate experienced by the United States and Europe (about 2.5 per 1,000 people). The government has supported family planning by opening up facilities throughout the country to provide contraception services and by favoring fewer children and older marital age in Social Security policies. This has led to a decrease in fertility rates to about seventeen births for every 1,000 people (right around the 50thpercentile).
98% of Tunisia’s population practices Sunni Islam. The remaining 2% is comprised of a mix of Christians, Jews, and other religions. Tunisia has a secular and tolerant culture and provides guarantees for the free practice of religion in the constitution. One third of the Jewish population, or about 700 people, live in Tunis while the remaining 1,000 reside in Djerba, an island off the eastern coast of Tunisia.
In spite of its small size, Tunisia is a historically diverse country. It was conquered by the Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs and is home to an array of ethnic groups and religions.
Tunisia has a rich artistic culture and hosts at least fifty festivals every year. The country is known for many of its craft products such as pottery, carpets, and jewelry, and is especially famous for mosaics of varying colors and shapes. These are often carved out of stone or marble and feature depictions of Roman and Islamic times. The Bardo Museum, located in Tunis, holds one of the largest collections of mosaics from the Greek, Roman, and Islamic periods.
The Jasmine Revolution, which sparked the later Arab Spring movement and led to the resignation of Tunisian president Ben Ali, has begun to influence contemporary Tunisian art. Carthage Contemporary, a program located in the Carthage National Antiquities Museum, has recently launched a series titled “Chkoun Ahna” meaning “about us”. Curator Khadija Hamdi describes the exhibit as one which looks to understand Tunisian history through modern art.
Tunisia is home to some of the most impressive Punic and Roman sites. The amphitheater in El Jem is the third largest amphitheater in the Roman world (after the Coliseum in Rome and the amphitheater in Capua). Dougga, in northern Tunisia, is considered one of the most well preserved Roman towns in North Africa. You can also visit the old city of Carthage, destroyed and later rebuilt by the Romans in 146 BC following the Third Punic War.
The Great Mosque of Kairouan, also known as the Mosque of Uqba, is one of the oldest mosques in North Africa. It was built in several stages during the 7th and 8th centuries during the Aghlabid period and served as the prototype for other North African mosques. The Aghlabids were a dynasty of emirs in North Africa who swore allegiance to the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. They served as a critical trading point on the Mediterranean between Africa and Europe.
Many movies have been filmed in Tunisia including parts of George Lucas’ Star Wars movies. Many of the sets can still be seen today including the site of Tataouine and the home of Luke Skywalker. The country has also hosted locations for films such as Roman Polanski’s Pirates, the action film Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
Tunisia is best known for ma’louf, a kind of Andalusian music imported by Arabs and Jews during the 15thcentury. Andalusian music is influenced by the Muslim period of rule in Spain known as Al-Andalus. It is played by small musical ensembles consisting of violins, lutes (ouds), and zithers, a type of string instrument common in Southern Europe. Ma’louf was highly influenced by Ottoman culture, having adopted Turkish-style compositions and musical structures during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Today, it is mostly played at weddings and public celebrations of religious holidays.
Recently, Tunisian underground music has found an audience among younger Tunisians. Since most contemporary Tunisian mainstream music includes only a few different musical styles, predominantly ma’louf, underground music has come to include any artist or band that sings or composes in a different genre. Most heavy metal, dark, and Gothic bands in Tunisia sing in English. In contrast, most Tunisian rappers perform in Tunisian (the local Arabic dialect). The Tunisian rap scene is very productive with artists such as DJ Costa, Arab Clan, Warda Crew, Slim Larnaaout, and Kamel Zmen. Electronic music is also on the rise in Tunisia. Due to suppression from the Tunisian government of underground music, these musical styles often discuss themes of defiance against the government. Underground music was often played during the Jasmine Revolution for this reason.
Soccer is the most popular sport in Tunisia with Tunisians having participated in several African and World Cup competitions. Their national team, known as “The Eagles of Carthage,” has qualified for four FIFA World Cups. The first one was in 1978, but Tunisia has yet to make it out of the first round. Nevertheless, they made history in the 1978 tournament in Argentina by becoming the first African team to win a World Cup match, beating Mexico 3–1. Tourism has helped develop and popularize many other sports such as golf, volleyball, and tennis, with the national volleyball team winning eight championships in Africa. The country also hosts the Tunis Open, a tennis tournament featuring players from all over the world. Water sports such as sailing and scuba diving are also very popular.