Tunisia (Official name: The Republic of Tunisia; Arabic pronunciation: TU-nis) 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 the state of 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 domestic and industrial waste, water pollution, limited natural fresh water resources, deforestation, desertification, and soil erosion. Around one quarter of waste water is recycled for such uses as farming irrigation. The rest is processed at state-run treatment facilities before being released into inland waterways and seas. Environmental watchdog and advocacy groups did pre and post-treatment water quality tests and found very little difference in the level of toxicity of the water.
Tunisia has ratified international environmental agreements including the 2012 Kyoto Protocol, as well as the 2016 Paris Agreement, but lacks the means to implement many of the recommendations. Nonetheless, when the country revised its constitution after successfully deposing previous president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it became only the 3rd country to embed climate protection language in its text.
Tunisia is an oil-producing country but growing domestic demands has required increased importation to meet its energy needs. Waste and by-products associated with Tunisia’s phosphate industry (used for fertilizers and preservatives) has led to major health and environmental problems in the southern Gulf of Gabes area. Marine life in this region is not sustainable and cancer rates are higher and other pollution-related health problems (infertility, miscarriages, pulmonary sicknesses) are more common than anywhere else in the country. To that end, Tunisia has partnered with the UN Development Program and private parties to harness solar energy for export and domestic use. In the summer of 2019, the Tozeur photovoltaic solar power plant was inaugurated. Located in the south, at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert, this plant is just the beginning step of the goal of meeting 30% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2030 from the current rate of only 3%.
Because of its location on 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 provide vital information about its first inhabitants, the indigenous Amazigh (Berber) population. 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. tarting 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 6th century, 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 during the period of 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. His historic Jericho Speech in 1965 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 popular movement escalated 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 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. One day after assuming office, Marzouki appointed Hamadi Jebali of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement as prime minister. The new government, 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, but some areas of law and human rights remain unaddressed. In February 2013, the Ennahda government resigned and a temporary caretaker government took control until December 2014, when current president, Beji Caid Essabri of the Nidaa Tounes party, defeated Marzouki.
The sudden departure of Ben Ali, and the series of successive interim governments led to a protracted and disorganized transition period that allowed for a breakdown in security and infrastructure in the country. After the revolution, a prevailing drive to purge the country of all remnants of Ben Ali’s reign resulted in the dismissal of military and political leaders, as well as state-supported Muslim clerics, that left a vast power and security vacuum. Political prisoners, including political Islamists, were given amnesty, and took advantage of the instability to lay claim to available positions of authority. Thus began the growth of a politically active Salafist movement that has since turned violent; Tunisia has garnered international attention because of a disproportionately high number of Tunisian jihadists engaged in terrorism activity domestically, within regional conflicts in Syria and Libya, and, increasingly, throughout Europe. An estimated 6,000-7,000 Tunisians have left their country to fight with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates, such as Okba ibn Nafaa Brigade and Ansar Al Sharia. Tunisians have been engaged in prolonged fights on the borders with Algeria and Libya; have assassinated several Tunisian political leaders; and have specifically targeted tourists attractions.
The current government struggles to fight these activities by restricting movement, building barrier walls, and enacting sweeping anti-terror measures. Though Tunisia is widely perceived as the sole Arab Spring success story, the proliferation of violent extremism in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution and the continued economic stagnation and high rates of unemployment bring that claim into doubt.
Tunisia is a Democratic Republic. The 2014 constitution stipulated limitations on presidential powers. The president is the head of state and has executive authority along with the prime minister and cabinet. The president is directly elected for a five-year term and may be reelected only once. The president is the commander in chief of the armed forces and conducts foreign policy but cannot declare war or enter treaties without the approval of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives, which the country’s sole legislative chamber. Elected members of the Assembly also serve five-year terms. After legislative elections, the president appoints a member of the winning party or coalition to form a cabinet within two months; if they are unsuccessful in doing so, the president has the authority to appoint a prime minister from outside the winning party or coalition after consulting the various parliamentary groups. The president may also dissolve the assembly and call for new legislative elections if no cabinet is formed four months after the election.
Current President Kais Saied has served since October 2019 after the death of his predecessor Beji Caid Essebsi. The current prime minister, Hichem Mechichi was appointed by President Saied in September 2020 after the resignation of Elyes Fakhfakh.
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.
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 on 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 who 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. There are 198 institutions of higher education and research in the country.
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 facilities throughout the country to provide contraception services and by favoring fewer children and older marriage 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 50th percentile).
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 government and provides guarantees for the free practice of religion in the constitution. As mentioned above, however, there has been an increase in violent Islamist activity in the country, and Tunisians have engaged in radical terrorist movements beyond its borders as well. 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, all of which have left their mark on its unique culture.
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 best known for ma’louf, a kind of Andalusian music imported by Arabs and Jews during the 15th century. Al-Andalus, the Arabic term for a medieval Muslim territory and cultural domain that occupied most of what are today Spain and Portugal, left a lasting influence on the area’s culture. The style of music 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. African and native Amazigh (Berber) influences have further altered the sound of ma’louf, making the genre quite distinct from its provenance. 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 of cultural expression by various conservative forces, these musical styles often discuss themes of defiance against the government. Underground music was often played during the Jasmine Revolution for this reason.
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.
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.