HISTORY OF TUNISIA
With the decline of the local Berber dynasties in the 15th and 16th centuries, the valuable coastal strip of north Africa (known because of the Berbers as the Barbary coast) attracts the attention of the two most powerful Mediterranean states of the time – Spain in the west, Turkey in the east.
The Spanish-Turkish rivalry lasts for much of the 16th century, but it is gradually won – in a somewhat unorthodox manner – by the Turks. Their successful device is to allow Turkish pirates, or corsairs, to establish themselves along the coast. The territories seized by the corsairs are then given a formal status as protectorates of the Ottoman empire.
The first such pirate establishes himself on the coast of Algeria in 1512. Two others are firmly based in Libya by 1551. Tunisia is briefly taken in 1534 by the most famous corsair of them all, Khair ed-Din (known to the Europeans as Barbarossa). Recovered for Spain in 1535, Tunisia is finally brought under Ottoman control in 1574.
Piracy remains the chief purpose and main source of income of all these Turkish settlements along the Barbary coast. And the depredations of piracy, after three centuries, at last prompt French intervention in Algeria. This, at any rate, is stated by the French at the time to be the cause of their intervention. The reality is somewhat less glorious.
Algiers is occupied by the French in 1830, but it is not until 1847 that the French conquest of Algeria is complete – after prolonged resistance from the Berber hinterland, which has never been effectively controlled by the Turks on the coast.
It is in the European interest to police this entire troublesome Barbary region. Tunisia becomes a French protectorate in 1881, and Morocco (which has maintained a shaky independence, under its own local sultans, since the end of the Marinid dynasty) follows in 1912. Italy takes Libya from the Turks in 1912. The regions of the Barbary coast thus enter their last colonial phase before independence.
Tunisia as a French Protectorate: AD 1881-1934
French control over Tunisia, achieved in 1881, brings to an end several decades of diplomatic jockeying between three colonials powers, France, Britain and Italy. All three are officially involved in the region from 1869.
The local dynasty of beys (technically subordinate to the Turkish sultan but in practice independent) have in recent decades spent lavishly to modernize their country, using funds borrowed in Europe. The programme, accompanied by necessary attempts to increase taxes, creates profound local resentment. By 1869 it is clear that the province is bankrupt. France, Britain and Italy are placed jointly, by international agreement, in control of Tunisian finances.
This arrangement is inevitably a platform on which three rival colonial powers jockey and trade for position. France and Britain stand together in 1871 when the Italians begin to press vigorous claims (justified in the sense that Italy has more investment and more nationals settled in Tunisia than either other contender).
By 1878 France and Britain come to a quiet agreement that the British will allow Tunisia to be a French sphere of influence in return for French acceptance of the recently established British presence in Cyprus. This still leaves the Italians as the chief claimants for a colonial presence in Tunisia, until the French make a pre-emptive strike in 1881.
Using the pretext that some Tunisian tribesmen have strayed into the neighbouring French colony of Algeria, a French army of some 36,000 men is sent across the border. As they advance upon Tunis, the bey decides it will be prudent to come to terms. The 1881 treaty of Bardo (also known as Al Qasr as Sa’id) guarantees French protection for the bey’s territory and dynasty, but it also limits his authority to internal affairs. All other aspects of Tunisian policy are henceforth to be dealt with by the French.
This sudden lapse into colonial status brings many material benefits to Tunisia. But it provokes, through the following decades, a crescendo of resistance.
The Young Tunisian Party is formed in 1907 to agitate for Tunisian autonomy. In 1920 a more aggressive group calling itself Destour (‘constitution’) puts forward a demand for full independence. From 1922 Destour has the support of the bey. But the French, by a judicious blend of repression and concessions, ensure that there is little progress.
By 1934 the younger nationalists are again impatient. They break away from Destour, calling themselves Neo-Destour. This event brings into prominence a politician destined to play the central role in the future relationship between France and Tunisia and then in the affairs of independent Tunisia. The secretary-general of the new party is Habib Bourguiba.
Habib Bourguiba: AD 1934-1957
The Neo-Destour party is immediately banned by the French authorities. Its secretary-general, Bourguiba, spends about ten of the next twenty years in French prisons. But thanks to his organizational skills the French never come near to suppressing the movement itself. As members of the party executive are discovered and arrested, others are always trained and ready to take their place.
World War II impinges in an improbable way on the Tunisian struggle for independence. Bourguiba, held in a prison in Vichy France and then moved by the Germans to captivity in Rome, comes under great pressure from both Germany and Italy to align the Tunisian independence movement with the cause of the Axis powers.
He resolutely refuses to do so, but is nevertheless allowed to return in March 1943 to German-occupied Tunisia. Two months later the allies successfully conclude the North Africa campaign, converging on Tunisia from east and west to clear out the Germans. Bourguiba is now able to make direct contact with the Free French, the faction likely to become the colonial power after the war.
He puts to them a plan for Tunisia’s gradual progress towards autonomy (gradualism, also known to Tunisians as ‘Bourguibism’, is a consistent characteristic of his political approach). But his proposals are given scant attention.
The next ten years therefore see an escalation in the campaign for independence. There is another spell in prison for Bourguiba (1952-4), during which his followers increasingly turn to terrorism.
In June 1954 a socialist premier, Pierre Mendès-France, comes to power in Paris and introduces a new policy of partial French withdrawal from two of the nation’s most troubled colonies, Tunisia and Indochina. The result, in April 1955, is an agreement for Tunisia’s internal autonomy with only foreign affairs and defence remaining in French hands (in effect a return to the situation in 1881). Bourguiba makes a triumphal return to Tunisia and a Neo-Destour government is formed.
Bourguiba refuses to accept his natural place at the head of the new Tunisian government until full independence is achived. But in keeping with his policy of gradualism, he continues to negotiate the next stage with the French government. In this he is greatly helped by the onset of a more serious French crisis in Algeria and by French acceptance, in November 1955, of independence for Morocco. The same is achieved for Tunisia in March 1956.
Bourguiba now becomes prime minister of the new nation, which in spirit is more inclined to republicanism than monarchy. In July 1957 the constitutional role of the bey is abolished. Bourguiba becomes head of state, as president, in addition to his role as premier.
Independence: from AD 1956
The policies of independent Tunisia are to a large extent the policies of Bourguiba himself. Overall this means a cautious and pragmatic approach which proves very successful.
Relations with France remain on the whole good, in spite of a few periods of intense crisis. These include the bombing of a Tunisian village in 1958 by French planes (the French claiming the right to pursue Algerian rebels across the border); a brief and costly war in 1961, initiated by Bourguiba to end the agreed presence of a French garrison in the port of Bizerte; and the suspension of French aid in 1964-6 in response to Bourguiba’s nationalizing of all land held by foreigners.
Bourguiba is also skilful in maintaining good relations with other western powers, and for the most part Tunisia under his rule has a respected role in the Arab world – though his inclination to take a less hard line than others on the issue of Israel creates hostility. At various times Tunis is host to the headquarters of the Arab League (moving from Cairo in 1979) and of the PLO (refugees from Beirut in 1982).
Internally his attitude is equally pragmatic, with a policy of non-doctrinaire socialism. In the 1960s he takes for a while a more rigid line, of state control and agricultural cooperatives, but when these measures fail he rapidly returns to a more moderate approach.
In 1975 the national assembly appoints Bourguiba president for life but by the late 1980s, when he has been head of state and chief executive for thirty years, he is becoming noticeably erratic in his conduct of affairs. In November 1987 his prime minister, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, removes him from office and takes his place as president.
Democracy has not been part of Bourguiba’s Tunisia. Brought to independence by a single party (Neo-Destour), it has remained a one-party state – though by 1987 the name of the single ruling party is the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Assembly).
Ben Ali holds elections, in 1989, soon after his assumption of power. Six opposition parties participate on this occasion, but they might as well have saved themselves the trouble. Ben Ali is elected president with 99% of the vote. His party, the RCD, wins all 141 seats in the national assembly.
During the 1990s Tunisia makes satisfactory economic progress, but its international image is increasingly tarnished by civil rights abuses. A new electoral law, introduced before the 1994 elections, adds nineteen seats to the assembly – reserving them for candidates of opposition parties. But this token gesture does little to mask the reality of Tunisian politics.
Ben Ali is the only presidential candidate in 1994 (winning this time 99.9% of the votes cast) and the RCD wins all 144 non-reserved seats.
More significant, and the reason for international protests, is the arrest on flimsy charges of leaders of opposition factions, followed by long spells in prison. One of the main targets of government hostility is Nahda, an outlawed Islamic party. Feared by the ruling elite as much as the FIS in Algeria, Nahda is part of the wider emergence of Islam as a renewed political force in the late 20th century.