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. It 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 freshwater resources, deforestation, desertification, and soil erosion. Around one-quarter of wastewater 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 accepted several international agreements on certain environmental topics, such as environmental protection, marine toxic chemical dumping, and the climate change Kyoto Protocol. Despite these agreements, it lacks the means to implement many of these recommendations. Notably, when the country redrafted its constitution after successfully deposing the previous president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, following Tunisia’s successful Arab Uprising movement, it became only the 3rd country to embed climate protection language in its text.
Tunisia is an oil-producing country but growing domestic demands have required increased importation to meet its energy needs. Waste and by-products associated with Tunisia’s phosphate industry (used for fertilizers and preservatives) have 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. 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 many 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 6-16 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, Prime Minister Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and a team of doctors judged Bourguiba to be medically incapable of running the country. 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 is now called the Jasmine Revolution. This popular movement escalated on January 4, 2011, after a street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, carried out 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 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. Price hikes in 2018 prompted widespread protest and demonstration yet the voter turnout in the 2018 elections was the lowest since 2011, at the start of the revolution, signaling political apathy amongst Tunisians after years of disorganization. In 2019, Tunisia’s first democratically elected president Beji Caid Essabri died. In the ensuing election, Kais Saied won the election with 72% of the vote. In July 2021, Saied was in the middle of a political crisis when he disbanded parliament and dismissed the current prime minister, Hichem Machichi. This move suspended the legal immunity carried by members of parliament in Tunisia, and several political opponents were arrested. The move was dubbed a coup by his political opponents. In September 2021, Saied vowed to change the Tunisian Constitution and named Najla Bouden Romdhane to serve as prime minister, the first woman in the Arab World to assume such a role.
The system of government established after the Arab Spring and enumerated in the 2014 constitution of Tunisia is a semi-presidential parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature. The president shares Executive power with the prime minister. The president is elected directly by the citizens to a five-year term. The prime minister is chosen by the president and is tasked with creating a cabinet. The cabinet must be approved by the legislature. If the legislature does not approve the newly-created cabinet, the president has the power to appoint a prime minister and cabinet from outside the winning party. If after four months the legislature cannot agree on a new cabinet, the president can dissolve the legislature and call for new legislative elections.
Legislators are elected to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People by party-list proportional representation from each electoral district of the country. There are currently 217 representatives in the legislature. The Tunisian judiciary is independent and capable of reviewing legislation, although the practice of presidential appointment of judges has caused some to cast doubt on its actual independence and neutrality. The top court is the Constitutional Court, a 12 person court that rules on the constitutional legality of laws and actions. Four judges are appointed by the president, four by the Supreme Judicial Council, and four by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. However, due to political strife, no such council has been appointed.
The major parties of Tunisia are Ennahda, the Islamist democratic party, largely considered to be the most moderate political Islamist group in the Arab World. Other parties include Nidaa Tounes, a secular, broad-based anti-Islamism party, and Long Live Tunisia or Tahya Tounes, a secular party that was once a bloc of Nidaa Tounes. From 2014-2019, the president of Tunisia was Beji Caid Essibsi of the Nidaa Tounes party and the prime minister Youssef Chahed of the Tahya Tounes party. The 2019 election saw Kais Saied win a landslide election. In July 2021, Saied created a political crisis by disbanding parliament and dismissing the prime minister (see the last paragraph of history).
For many years, Tunisia had a state-run economy, with the government artificially controlling prices. Since then, Tunisia has tried to open itself up to be a part of the global economy and trade network. Tunisia’s economy is largely based on oil, phosphates, manufacturing, and agriculture. Tunisia seeks to take advantage of its easy access to European markets through export. Its main exports are textiles, food, petroleum products, chemicals, and phosphates, with 80% of its exports landing in the European Union. Labor costs are much lower in Tunisia than in Europe, however, due to political and regional instability, Tunisia has failed to attract the patronage of European companies operating on Tunisian soil. The country houses its own stock exchange, the Bourse de Tunis. Before the 2011 elections, corruption and nepotism plagued the Tunisian economy, coupled with the 2008 world economic crisis, Tunisia’s economy contracted. Political gridlock has also prevented politicians from providing support to Tunisians and also has led to increasing prices of common goods. Unemployment hovers around 15%.
Tunisia also relies upon tourism as one of its main sources of revenue. From the modern city of Tunis to the ruins of Carthage, and coastal resorts along the beaches of the north, Tunisia draws in millions of visitors each year. Unfortunately, a 2015 terrorist attack on a popular tourist attraction, the Bardo National Museum, greatly hurt tourism in the country. COVID-19 has also greatly restricted the Tunisian tourism sector. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in prices and a decrease in income for the average Tunisian citizen. While the impact of COVID-19 is still not fully present, many economists suspect that the Tunisian economy will continue to contract.
People and 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, respectively. French is commonly used in major cities and 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 Islam. Islam is the state religion of Tunisia as is stated in the constitution. The president of Tunisia is required to be a Muslim. According to a Pew Research poll, 58% of Tunisian Muslims identify as Sunnis, while the remainder do not claim a specific sect of Islam. The government pays for the construction and maintenance of mosques and pays the salaries of prayer leaders. Islamic religious studies are required to be taught in public schools. There is also a small Sufi population in Tunisia. Sufis are Islamic mystics that follow ritualistic Islamic practices. 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. Overall, Tunisia is the least religious country in the Arab World, with nearly 50% of young people claiming to not be religious.
The remaining 2% is 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. It is estimated that about 30,000 Christians are living in Tunisia, of which 80% are Catholic. There are only 7,000 Christian citizens, the remaining 23,000 are foreigners according to the United States State Department. Christianity was introduced to the region long ago by the Roman Empire. After the arrival of Islam to the region, the Christian population decreased, but there are still some remnants of the Christian community today. There is also a sizeable Jewish population. There are between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews in Tunisia. The Tunisian government pays the salary of rabbis and also partially funds the construction and maintenance of synagogues. During the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Israel offered to accept the immigration of Tunisian Jews into Israel. 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, where Jews have lived for 2,600 years.
Despite 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 the 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.