Pre-Colonial History
Tunisia was called Ifriqiyah in the early centuries of the Islamic period. That name, in turn, comes from the
Roman word for Africa and the name also given by the Romans to their first African colony following the
Punic Wars against the Carthaginians in 264-146 BC. After brief periods of rule by the Vandals and
Byzantines, the Arabs conquered the area in AD 647. Although the Arabs initially unified North Africa, by
1230 a separate Tunisian dynasty had been established by the Hafsids. Muslim Andalusians migrated to
the area after having been forced out of Spain in 1492. By 1574, Tunisia was incorporated into the
Ottoman Empire, which lasted until 1922.
Tunisia is the smallest of the Maghreb states and consequently the most cohesive. By the beginning of the
19th century virtually all of its inhabitants spoke Arabic. Berber, the earlier language of the Maghreb,
survived in Tunisia in only a few pockets, especially in the extreme south. The vast majority of the
population was Muslim, with a small Jewish minority. A single major city, Tunis, dominated the countryside
both politically and culturally. Tunis itself was located near the site of the earlier Carthage. More easily
controlled from within than any other Maghreb country, Tunisia was also more open to the influence of
people and ideas from abroad. Roman Africa, for example, was the most intensively Christianized portion
of North Africa, and Ifriqiyah was later more quickly and more thoroughly Islamicized.
A small state with limited resources, Tunisia nonetheless managed a considerable autonomy within the
framework of larger empires ruled from afar. This status was achieved, for example, under the 'Abbasids
in the 9th century and later under the Ottomans. Tunisia's geographic and historical legacy helped prepare
it for the shocks it received in the 19th century as a land caught between an expanding Europe and a
declining Ottoman Empire. Yet Tunisia proved to be as vulnerable economically as it was militarily.
The Growth of European Influence
Like Algeria, Tunisia had been a beylik of the Ottoman administration since the end of the 16th century.
However, in 1705, Hussein bin Ali Agha of Cretan origin staged a coup and founded the Husseinic dynasty
which ruled Tunisia until 1957. But unlike the Algerian Deys, the Husseinic dynasty was not by
appointment; it was hereditary, although still under nominal Ottoman suzereignty. The Ottomans were not
satisfied with it remote aspect of their control and wished to correct this. In 1836, they had toppled the
Qaramanlis of Tripolitania and re-established direct rule over that territory. Throughout his reign, 1837-55,
Ahmed Bey worked hard to stop this fate from befalling Tunisia. The Ottoman threat led him to increase
expenditure on the army, while at the same time moving closer to the French as his potential protectors.
In 1830, at the time of the French invasion of Algiers, Tunisia was officially a province of the Ottoman
Empire but in reality was an autonomous state. Because the principal military threat had long come from
neighbouring Algeria, the reigning bey of Tunisia, Husayn, cautiously went along with assurances from the
French that they had no intention of colonizing Tunisia. Husayn Bey even accepted the idea that Tunisian
princes would rule the cities of Constantine and Oran. The scheme, however, had no chance of success and
was soon abandoned.
Tunisia's security was directly threatened in 1835, when the Ottoman Empire deposed the ruling dynasty
in Libya and reestablished direct Ottoman rule. Thereafter, the vulnerable beylik of Tunis found itself
surrounded by two larger powers--France and the Ottoman Empire both of whom had designs on Tunisia.
From that time until the establishment of the French protectorate in 1881, Tunisian rulers had to placate
the larger powers while working to strengthen the state from within.
Ahmad Bey, who ruled from 1837 to 1855, was an avowed modernizer and reformer. With the help of
Western advisers (mainly French), he created a modern army and navy and related industries.
Conscription was also introduced to the great dismay of the peasantry. More acceptable were Ahmad's
steps to integrate Arabic-speaking native Tunisians fully into the government, which had long been
dominated by Mamluks and Turks. Ahmad abolished slavery and took other modernizing steps intended to
bring Tunisia more in line with Europe, but he also exposed his country to Europe's infinitely greater
economic and political power. His reforms negatively affected the already stagnant economy, which led to
greater debt, higher taxes, and increased unrest in the countryside
Reign of Muhammad Bey, 1855-59
By the time of his death in 1855, Ahmed Bey had left a viable treasury of sorts in Tunisia. His successor,
Muhammad Bey, adopted policies that ended up dissipating Tunisian economy. This began to expose him
to foreign interference, the possibility of which the Bey increased by making a string of ‘mistakes’ that
eventually gave the French an excuse to invade and occupy Tunisia.
The first ‘mistake’ was to defy the consuls over the question of slavery. In response to British pressure in
the 1840s, Ahmed Bey had made the sale or ownership of slaves illegal in Tunisia. Muhammad Bey
reversed this, viewing the institution of slavery as an inseparable tradition of the Muslim society. This
attitude was bound to result in European intervention
Muhammad Bey made another ‘mistake’ in his administration of justice. First, he got into the habit of
administering justice in person, and second, he did so with the arbitrariness that was sooner or later
bound to provide the consuls with an excuse to encourage the invasion of his territory. A case in point was
the affair of a Jew called Samuel Sfez, who, having quarreled with a Muslim, said some derogatory things
about Islam. When the case came before the Bey, he exploited the occasion to revenge on Sfez’s Jewish
employer and tax collector, Nasim Shammama, who being under French protection, enjoyed judicial
immunity from the Bey. The Bey sentenced Sfez to death and had him executed on July 24,1857.
Ahd al-Aman and the Constitution of 1860
The French and British consuls, Leon Roches and Richard Wood, respectively, used the Sfez affair to have
Muhammad Bey make certain reforms, which came to be called Ahd al-Aman’ (the Pact of Security). The
purpose of these reforms, made under the threat of the gun-boats, was to ensure the security of Tunisians
and foreigners in the country against arbitrary judicial and economic processes. The text of the document
having been prepared by Roches, Bey issued the Ahd al-Aman on September 10, 1857, spelling out the
yardstick that would in future be applied in his treatment of his subjects and foreigners living in Tunisia.
The law stipulated three things. It affirmed the security of persons and property; provided for the equality
of Muslims and non-Muslims before the law; and gave Europeans the right to acquire property in Tunisia.
The result of the Pact was to open Tunisia’s economic door wider to European penetration, and stimulate
pressures from the consuls jockeying for concessions. Internally, it encouraged Tunisian leaders to seek
changes in the system of beylik tyrany and corruption. These men were led by the Bey’s Minister of
Marine, Khair al-Din Pasha, who in the succeeding years was to make such a contrib ution in Tunisia ’s
colonial history. The two-pronged pressure from these men and consuls, led the Bey to appoint a
Constitutional Commission, charged with drafting a constitution guided by the principles contained in the
Ahd. The Constitution (or destour) which was promulgated in 1860, a year after the accession of a new
Bey, Muhammad al-Sadiq Bey, was the first ever in an Arab country. In theory, it reduced the authority of
the monarchy.
The Bey ‘s headship of state and succession as hereditary in his family, was recognized. The Constitution
further stipulated that there would be a Supreme Council of 60 members, to which the ministers would be
responsible; the latter no longer being answerable to the Bey. The Supreme Council so provided for, was
empowered to initiate legislation, and to control state revenues including taxation and expenditure. It
would also be responsible for the appointment and dismissal of high-ranking government officers, and for
controlling the size of the army. Finally, it served to check the powers of the consuls. However, the Bey
still had a leverage in this supreme Council, being responsible for appointing its members, and for this
reason it fell short of being a body that could effectively curb beylik autocracy and corruption. Its first
President, Khair al-Din soon resigned when the fact of its ineffectiveness dawned on him, and the
Constitution itself was suspended in 1864. It had failed.
Reasons for Failure of the Constitution
Two main factors were responsible for the failure of constitutional experiment. The first was the French
government’s opposition to it, and the second, the financial problems the country found itself in the 1860s.
The French had been instrumental in formulating the Ahd, issued by the Bey in 1857, and would have been
expected to give support to its logical constitutional sequel. They did not for two main reasons. First, in the
1860s French economic interests greatly expanded. But the constitutional provision of a Supreme Council
now proved a stumbling block to a practice among the consuls that had become a widely recognized
method of dealing with the Tunisian government, viz, that of obtaining concessions from the Bey by
bribing high officials and gun-boat diplomacy. It appeared the Council was going to make this method
The other area of European, particularly French, opposition lay in the constitutional logic of placing their
nationals under the jurisdiction of Tunisian courts. The Bey thought this was a logical consequence to the
constitutional reforms that granted them equality with Tunisians in every respect. The French consul, Leon
Roches, and other European consuls thought differently, and insisted on the old arrangement whereby
cases involving Europeans were heard by them. In the end, Tunisian jurisdiction was only allowed to
operate in litig ation involving landed property, while those of criminal, commercial or civil nature were
dealt with as per the old arrangements.
The second factor that led to the failure of the constitutional experiment was the country’s financial mess,
normally linked with the name of the Prime Minister at the time, Mustafa Khaznadar. The Supreme Council,
which was supposed to examine and streamline the state budget, found itself powerless and ineffective,
thanks to the Prime Minister’s negative attitude towards it. Khaznadar epitomised corruption in Tunisia,
and like the French, had a dim view of the cleaning up role the constitution was meant to play.
Unfortunately for the constitution and the Council, the Prime Minister, in spite of all his weaknesses, had
the Bey’s ear. The latter trusted him and used him for contracting loans for the state. The Prime Minister’s
mismanagement and embezzlement forced the bey in 1862 to borrow large sums of money from Messrs
Openheim and Erlanger of Paris, among others, at a high rate of interest.
In order to meet the obligations of the loan, the poll-tax was doubled in 1863. Towns that were normally
exempted from poll-tax: Tunis, Munastir, Sfax, Susa and Qairawan, were infuriated by the new heavy levy.
Soldiers were also for the first time to be taxed. Taxation caused a tribal rebellion in 1864. The French
consul and internal opponents of the reforms of 1860, exploited this opportunity to make the Bey suspend
the constitution.
With this, Khaznadar now had no impediments to his embezzling spree, and the country’s financial position
took a sharper nose-dive. By 1866, with a debt of over 41 million francs, it was obvious the country could
no longer be able to meet its obligations to the many French creditors. The moment now seemed
opportune for a French military intervention under any pretext. The handiest one at the moment was the
one provided by the financial mess the country found itself in. The French would intervene to help rectify
the position. But eventually, the idea of a commission sounded less alarming to those who were unaware
of the real motives, and more convenient to the French.
The International Financial Commission, 1869
In 1869, the Bey was persuaded by the French government to set up an international financial commission
to control the Tunisian government budget, control all state expenditure and organise the repayment of
the debts. The commission should have an executive committee, over which France would have
predominance, The Bey was reminded of the alternative of the gun-boat solution to his country’s
problems, and the International Financial Commission was set up, representing the French, Italian and
British interests, though the greater part of the debt was owed to the French creditors.
The setting up of the Commission was an important step in the erosion of Tunisia’s economic
independence. Khair al-Din, the erstwhile President of the Supreme Council, was appointed by the Prime
Minister, Khaznadar, as President of the Executive Committee of the Commission for his good rapport with
the French who Khaznadar thought it wise to please. Khair al-Din, together with his French Vice President,
Victor Villet, did much to try to put Tunisia's finances in order. Among other reforms, the Executive
Committee decided that to revive the economy, there should be a uniform system of taxation, and poll-tax
and tax on agriculture should be lowered. Khaznadar did not like it, and wanted the system of taxation to
continue being operated at the old level.
Controlling the Executive Committee greatly assisted the French in extending their influence in Tunisia. But
after defeat and humiliation in the war against Prussia in 1870, their expansion was hempered, and the
Italians threatened to be their closest rivals in Tunisia. It was the British, however, who in this period of
French weakness achieved much by procuring from Istanbul a ‘firman’ (imperial decree), defining the
relations of Tunisia to the Ottoman Empire. Khair al-Din was sent to Istanbul, and the ‘firman’ was issued
in October, 1871.
The ‘firman’ recognized the Husseinic dynasty’s hereditary rights, and also limited the powers of the Bey
with respect to foreign affairs, which would be handled by the Ottoman Empire. All this was supposed to
ultimately benefit the British. English businessmen gained some concessions after the ‘firman’ of 1871, but
not much. The British consul lost his ally, the Prime Minister, Khaznadar, who was finally dismissed in
1873 through French intrigue. Khair al-Din became Prime Minister.
The Premiership of Khair al-Din, 1873-77
Khair al-Din’s fifteen years’ experience in matters of government had prepared him well for the job he now
assumed in 1873. Before heading the Supreme Council, he had stayed in Paris from 1852 to 1856, and
understood the French well. He admired certain of their ways, but was only too aware of their ambitions in
the country. Besides, he did not think the French values so good as to warrant uncritical acceptance in
Tunisia. He believed in the possibility of selective cultural borrowing, that would enable the Muslim beliefs
and values to exist with whatever could be adopted from the French.
The new Prime Minister’s term was therefore characterized by cautious, but highly successful reform of the
economic, political and social ills that had bedeviled the country for solong. Knowing its shortcomings, he
did not restore the Constitution of 1860, but revived the authority of government through overseeing the
‘qaids’ (provincial governors) and state expenditure.
He alleviated the burden of taxation that had caused a rebellion in 1864, but in order to lessen the
temptation to corruption, the tax-collectors were allowed to retain as salaries one-tenth of taxes collected,
provided they submitted an annual account of their work. An attempt was also made to rejuvenate
agriculture and crafts through state assistance, and state lands were granted to peasants in the region of
Sfax willing to plant them with olives.
In the social field, Khair al-Din used municipal taxes in keeping the capital cleaned, and set up in 1875, the
Sadiqiyya College, the first Tunisian school to have a modern curriculum. The property confiscated from
the former greedy Prime Minister, Khaznadar, in partial reimbursement of his debts to the state, being
constituted into a ‘habus’ (Muslim charitable donations) became the main source for financing this College.
The College taught maths, the sciences, Italian and French, a curriculum that was in no way ambitious by
modern standards, but which in the Tunisia of the 1870s was revolutionary as a model in the Franco-Arab
educational system -
Thus Khair al-Din had done much to bring back pride to a state that his predecessor had looted and raped.
His exit from leadership was therefore unfortunate, the more so as it was engineered by those who had
assisted him gain it, the French. It was brought about by a series of events over which the Prime Minister
took uncompromising position to the French.
First, the French consul, Roustan, requested the granting of a concession to the Frenchman, Oscar Gay, to
build the port of Carthage. The Prime Minister had to reject this request. Next, the French wanted a
contract to build an artificial lake in the depressions of Algero-Tunisian ‘shutts’ by cutting the isthmus of
Gabis, and the Prime Minister found himself unable to grant this because it was not part of the country’s
economic priorities. Finally, Khair al-Din rejected a French request to have a French line from Algeria
joined with the Tunisian.
It was quite clear to him that this request was politically motivated, for the line in question could be used
in a French invasion from Algeria. The French thought this was enough from their unyielding ‘ally’, and
Roustan, in a carefully orchestrated smear campaign, which the Bey, British and Italians joined, finally
succeeded in securing Khair al-Din’s resignation in 1877. Mustafa b. Ismail succeeded him in 1878.
Mustafa b. Ismail was the Bey’s favourite and a new friend of the French. Under him, the past tyranny,
extortion and corruption came back to Tunisia. It was the old question all over again, of survival of the
fittest, and the fittest enriched themselves with abandon. By the end of 1878, enough damage had been
redone to the country’s economy, and the government was unable to meet its obligations to the Financial
Commission. The age-old excuse for foreign intervention was once again steadily building up. Then came
the congress of Berlin, and Tunisia’s fate was sealed.
The Congress of Berlin and French Invasion of Tunisia
The Congress of Berlin met in 1878. France expressed its desire for occupation of Tunisia. Bismark of
Germany, only too conscious of the positive role this would play in diverting the French attention from the
loss of Alsace-Lorraine, was unequivocal in his encouragement of such occupation. Britain was bent on
occupying Cyprus, and hoping for aquid pro quo,pledged its concurrence to French occupation of Tunisia.
The Italians, although for long also nursing hopes for Tunisia, were encouraged by Britain and France to
take possession of Tripolitania, and leave Tunisia alone for the French.
The Italians were not very happy with this arrangement, and the tempo of economic competition they now
showed acted as a further catalyst to the French ambitions in Tunisia by introducing an element of hurry.
Represented in Tunisia by their ablest diplomat, Licurco Maccio from December 1878, the Italian economic
gains became a big worry. In March, 1880, for example, the Italian company, Rubattino, outbid the French
Bona-Gulma Company in the purchase of the strategic Tunis-Gouletta-Marsa railway.
The French government now decided to send an expedition to Tunisia, if a proper pretext could be found.
On March 30, 1881, that pretext was found. The Khrumir tribesmen, living in the region of al-kaf (Le Kef)
in north-eastern Tunisia, staged an incursion into Algerian territory, which was already under French
occupation. The French, explaining to the Bey that this was not their first time to make raids, this time
vowed to punish the Khrumir themselves. But when the French troops crossed the frontier into Tunisia
from Algeria, they made for the capital instead of Khrumir territory. Shortly afterwards, a sea-borne force
occupied Bizerta. Towards the end of April, the French forces entered Tunis without resistance from any
quarter, and on May 12, Muhammad al-Sadiq Bey signed the treaty of Bardo with Roustan, putting his
country under the French.
Colonial History
The Treaty of Bardo, 1881
The Treaty of Bardo made no reference to a protectorate, but stated that the military occupation was
temporary and should end the moment there was evidence that the Tunisian administration was capable of
re-establishing law and order in the country. The Bey was to remain the head of state, and together with
his family, would enjoy French protection. But while the existing agreements between Tunisia and other
countries would be honoured in future Tunisia’s foreign policy and finances would be controlled by the
This latter provision was going to be compromised by the presence of the International Financial
Commission, so Paul Cambon, appointed first Resident-Minister in Tunisia in 1882, began to negotiate its
dissolution with the British and Italians. At the same time, he began negotiating a supplementary treaty
with the Bey which would make the French administrative policy smoother. In October 1882, Muhammad
al-Saliq Bey died, but his successor, Ali Bey, agreed to sign the convention of al-Marsa on June 8, 1883.
This was the Convention that finally established a protectorate in Tunisia. In April 1884, the al-Marsa
Convention was ratified by the French Chamber of Deputies.
The al-Marsa Convention and the Protectorate System
Under the Protectorate system that was ushered in by the al-Marsa Convention, the Resident-Minister
(from 1885 known as Resident-General) became the real ruler of the country. The Bey remained the
nominal head of state, and continued to have a cabinet consisting of the Prime Minister and one other
minister. The Bey issued all decrees, while the Prime Minister issued central government orders. But the
Resident had far-reaching powers, including the power to approve all the judicial, financial and
administrative reforms on his own, as well as the right to act as Foreign Minister. The Commander of the
French occupation forces was to assist him as Minister of War, while the post of Director-General of
Finance was occupied by M. Depienne, former Vice-President of the Executive Committee of the Financial
Commission. The post of Secretary-General of the Tunisian Government was filled by a Frenchman, who
came to assume the function of co-ordinating and controlling the work of the various government
departments, and replaced the Prime Minister’s office in most of its work.
The French left the hierarchical organization of the provincial administration of ‘qaids’ (provincial
governors), ‘Khalifas’ (deputy governors) and ‘shaikhs’ (administrators of tribunal clans) intact, but from
1884 provincial administrators had French ‘controleurs civil’ (civil superintendents) without whose approval
no important decisions could be taken These were the officers who now supervised the collection of taxes
by qaids, and advised the administration on public works and monitored the local leaders’ political
There were changes in the administration of justice also. French courts tried cases involving Europeans,
while qadi courts tried those between two Muslim parties. The rabbinical court in Tunis was to try cases
involving Jews only. All cases involving a European party and a Tunisian fell under the jurisdiction of the
French courts, while the beylical court in Tunis passed judgement in cases of criminal or penal nature
involving Muslims. But the beylical court was so altered as to bring its substantive functions firmly under
the French, for the Bey was now only allowed to pass verdicts already recommended to him by the French
courts in these criminal or penal cases. Thus in just three or so years, the French position developed from
one of military occupation to a fully-fledged protectorate.
Tunisian Reaction to the Protectorate, 1881-1914
The French occupation was opposed with some violence in the south of the Protectorate towards the end of
1881. This opposition was largely engineered by the Ottoman authorities in Tripolitania. For a long time
the French hands were tied by the indeterminate nature of the Tunisian boundary with Tripolitania where
the tribesmen who resisted migrated. Due to Ottoman propaganda, the frontier was not defined until
However, on the whole, the Tunisian populations of the towns and countryside staged only mild resistance
to the French. The mild Tunisian opposition to French rule before the First World War may be explained by
two factors. First, in their protectorate system in Tunisia, the French adopted a flexib le, and in its own way
pragmatic policy that the Arabs could not readily pick a quarrel with. By letting the Bey continue as head
of state, the French made the Muslims, albeit in theory, feel that they were still being ruled by a fellow
Muslim, In the field of justice, most litigation suits were still dealt with in the Muslim courts. Nor were the
Muslims bothered by the paternalistic attitude of the administration for the fact of the matter was that they
had not experienced representative Government before 1881. The fact that until now the Tunisian
leadership had been in the hands of the traditional Tunisian aristocracy, whose position the French
consolidated, did avert what would have been a natural conflict between the Tunisian Muslims and their
French rulers.
The second factor that accounted for the mild reaction of the Tunisian Muslims to the French protectorate,
was the emergence of politically conscious leaders with Eurocentric reformist orientation. These were the
disciples of Khair al-Din who, like him, were prepared to tolerate French rule since they valued its
modernizing potentialities. In order to propagate modern ideas among the Tunisians, this group, led by a
former close follower of Khair al-Din, Bashir Sfar, founded an Arabic newspaper called al-Hadira (the
Capital). They also tried to have Tunisian Sadiqiyya College opened for the education of women.
In 1890, the group started the Khalduniyya School which taught modern subjects to graduates of Zaituna,
the traditional mosque-university in Tunis. At the same time the French played their part by developing a
French education system at the primary and secondary levels. These resulted into Franco-Arab schools in
which two thirds of the instruction was in French, and one-third in Arabic.
Almost obsessed with the idea of modernization some of these reforming intellectuals, calling themselves
the Young Tunisians, declared their advocacy for cooperation with France in creating a modern, liberal
Tunisian state. Alternately, they were prepared to give their support to French colonization, if this would
aid agricultural modernization. In 1907, the Young Tunisians founded a French language newspaper, ‘Le
Tunisien’, to try to sell their ideas to the French public. This level of Francophilia by the intelligentsia made
violent resistance to the. French more unlikely.
However, for letting their obsession with modernization blur their realistic appreciation of what colonization
meant, the Young Tunisians were being naive, for they could not possibly have expected their boot-licking
disposition to be reciprocated by their colonizers. And this was clearly demonstrated by two incidents in
1911 and 1912. In 1911, the Protectorate authorities wished to expand a stone quarry. The move involved
encrouching on the boundaries of the jallax cemetry near Tunis. The Muslims of the capital resisted this
insult with a violent fury that resulted in nearly thirty European casualties, nine of them fatal. The figure
for Tunisian Muslims casualties was even higher.
The second incident also showed how weak was the programme of cooperation between Muslims and
French. In 1912, a Muslim child was run down by a train operated by an Italian. The Muslims employed in
the tramway system used the incident to demand, first, that the culprit be dismissed, and second, that
their conditions of service be upgraded to those that applied to Europeans. The Young Tunisians put their
weight behind these demands and the strike that followed. The Resident-General Alapetite, came down
heavily on those involved. Two of the Young Tunisians, Ali Bash Anba and Abdul-Aziz al-Thaalibi, were
Towards the end of 1912, martial law was imposed and was not lifted until 1921. This brought all political
activity to an end. The honeymoon was over. From now on, the relationship between the Muslims and
French was going to be more confrontational than friendly.
Besides education, the one most lasting effect of the Protectora te from the time of its establishment to the
First World War (1881-1914) was in agriculture. Land acquisition in Tunisia was done in a somewhat
different way from the practice in Algeria. In Tunisia, Frenchmen had to buy their lands. This meant that
the country was colonized by wealthy people with capital, or by ex-officials who chose to make a home in
the country. There was no free distribution of land.
The result of this policy was that the French population in Tunisia remained small. The population of the
latter was 71,000 against the former’s 24,000. This imbalance worried the Government, and caused the
authorities of the Protectorate to encourage French settlers to come to Tunisia. First, a Land Registration
Act was passed in 1885 to provide land for French settlers. The Act provided for the establ ishment of a
mixed tribunal to verify title deeds. But a problem, similar to the one in Algeria, arose between Muslim and
French concepts of property. The tribunal ended up not making enough unclaimed land available in this
Consequently, as from. 1898, the authorities required the administration of ‘habus’ to provide 2,000
hectares of land annually to be purchased by farmers on soft credit terms. A colonization fund was
established to buy farms for settlers, and the following year a special institute for training prospective
farmer-settlers in Tunisia was set up. This scheme achieved much, and by 1914, French agricultural
colonization had acquired nearly all the lands it could appropriate, which amounted to about 770,000
hectares of land, arithmetically working down to about one-fifth of all the cultivable lands in Tunisia.
The training and colonization scheme dramatically and positively changed the methods of Tunisian
agriculture. In some regions the French farmer-settlers cooperated with the Muslim populations, cooperation
from which both sides sometimes benefited. A case in point was the district of Sfax, where the
lands planted with olives increased ten times.
In spite of these developments, however, the growth of the French population community remained slow,
and not until 1930 did the French population in Tunisia surpass that of Italians. But the French owned
more land and controlled more industries than the Italians. Because of the imbalance in their populations,
the need for harmonious relations between the two communities was felt even more, since the French had
to rely on Italian skilled labour.
A necessary bond was created by the Catholic Church which was a dominant denomination in both France
and Italy. Another one was created by the Franco-Italian agreement of 1896, which gave the Italians the
right to enter the professions, including law, just like the French. Further, it allowed them to sit on juries, a
concession that immediately pleased them since it implied a greater commitment to justice. It also allowed
the Italians to maintain their schools and provided that Italian children born in Tunisia would no longer
lose their Italian nationality.
Even this moderate protonationalism was subject to repressive measures by the French in 1911-12. Little
nationalist activity took place during World War I (1914-18), but in the postwar period the first attempt at
mass political organization came with the creation of the Destour (Constitution) Party, so named for the
short-lived Tunisian constitution of 1861. In 1920 the Destour Party presented the bey and the French
government with a document that demanded the establishment of a constitutional form of government in
which Tunisians would possess the same rights as Europeans. The immediate result was the arrest of 'Abd
al-Aziz ath-Tha'alibi, the Destour leader. Two years later, the aged bey, Muhammad an-Nasir, requested
that the program of the Destour be adopted or he would abdicate. In response, the resident general,
Lucien Saint, surrounded the bey's palace with troops, and the demand was withdrawn. Saint thus
introduced restrictive measures, together with minor reforms, that pacified Tunisian sentiment and
weakened the nationalist movement for several years.
In 1934 a young Tunisian lawyer, Habib Bourguiba, and his colleagues broke with the Destour Party to
form a new organization, the Neo-Destour, which aimed at spreading propaganda and gaining mass
support. Under Bourguiba's vigorous leadership, the new party soon supplanted the existing Destour Party
and its leaders. Attempts by the French to suppress the new movement only fueled the fire. The Neo-
Destour began to gain more power and influence after the arrival of the Popular Front government in
France in 1936. When the Popular Front government collapsed, repression was renewed in Tunisia and was
met with civil disobedience. In 1938 serious disturbances led to the arrest of Bourguiba and other leaders
of the party, which was then officially dissolved.
World War II
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Neo-Destour leaders, though still untried, were deported to France.
However, they were released by the Nazis in 1942 following the German occupation of Vichy France and,
since Hitler regarded Tunisia as a sphere of Italian influence, he handed them over to the Fascist
government in Rome. There the leaders were treated with deference, the Fascists hoping to gain support
for the Axis. Bourguiba steadily refused to cooperate. In March 1943 Bourguiba made a noncommittal
broadcast, and the Neo-Destour leaders were finally allowed to proceed to Tunis, where the reigning bey,
Muhammad al-Munsif (Moncef), formed a ministry of individuals who were sympathetic to Destour.
The assumption of power by the Free French after the Nazi retreat produced complete disillusionment for
the Neo-Destour cause. The bey was deposed, while Bourguiba, accused of collaborating with the Nazis,
escaped imprisonment by fleeing in disguise to Egypt in 1945. Still, a vigorous campaign of propaganda for
Tunisian independence continued, and in view of the emancipation of the eastern Arab states, and later of
neighbouring Libya, the French felt compelled to make concessions. In 1951 the French permitted a
government with nationalist sympathies to take office, of which the secretary-general of the Neo-Destour,
Salah Ben Youssef, became a member, and Bourguiba was allowed to return to Tunisia. When the newly
formed government wished to establish a Tunisian parliament, however, the result was further repression;
Bourguiba was exiled, and most of the ministers were put under arrest. This resulted, for the first time, in
outbreaks of terrorism. Nationalist groups began to operate in the mountains, virtually paralyzing the
In July 1954 the French premier, Pierre Mendès-France, promised to grant complete autonomy to Tunisia,
subject to a negotiated agreement. Bourguiba returned to Tunisia and was able to supervise the
negotiations without directly participating. In June 1955 an agreement was finally signed by the Tunisian
delegates though it imposed strict limits in the fields of foreign policy, education, defense, and finance and
a mainly Neo-Destour ministry was formed. Salah Ben Youssef denounced the document, saying it was too
restrictive and refused to attend a specially summoned congress that unanimously supported Bourguiba.
In response, he organized a brief armed resistance in the south that was quickly put down. Ben Youssef
fled the country to escape imprisonment; he was assassinated in 1961.
Post-Colonial History
The French granted full independence to Tunisia in an accord that was reached on March 20, 1956, and
Bourguiba was chosen as Prime Minister. The rule of the beys was subsequently abolished, and on July 25,
1957, a republic was declared with Bourguiba as president.
Domestic Development
After independence was granted, the Neo-Destour Party (from 1964 to 1988, the Destourian Socialist
Party; from 1988, the Democratic Constitutional Rally [RDI]) ensured that Tunisia move quickly with
reforms, most notably in the areas of education, the liberation of women, and legal reforms. Economic
development was slower, but the government paid considerable attention to the more impoverished parts
of the country. In 1961 Ahmad Ben Salah took charge of planning and finance. His ambitious efforts at
forced-pace modernization, especially in agriculture, were foiled, however, by rural and conservative
opposition. Expelled from the party and imprisoned in 1969, Ben Salah escaped in 1973 to live in exile. His
fall brought a move in the government toward more conservative alignment.
In 1975 the Chamber of Deputies unanimously bestowed the presidency for life on the sick and aging
Habib Bourguiba, who centralized power under his progressive but increasingly personalized rule. Hedi
Amira Nouira, noted for his financial and administrative skills, became prime minister in November 1970;
his government, however, failed to resolve the economic crisis or address growing demands for reform
from liberals in his own party. A decade later, the ailing Nouira was replaced by Muhammad Mzali, who
made efforts to restore dissidents to the party and, by 1981, granted amnesty to many who had been
jailed for earlier disturbances. In addition, he persuaded Bourguiba to accept a multiparty system
(although only one opposition party was actually legalized).
The outcome of the elections in November 1981 was disappointing to those who sought political
liberalization. The National Front, an alliance of the Destourian Socialist Party and the trade union
movement, swept all 136 parliamentary seats, a result received with cynicism and dismay by the
opposition. Meanwhile, an Islamist opposition was developing around the Islamic Tendency Movement
(MTI). By 1984 Bourguiba saw an Islamist hand behind riots and demonstrations protesting rising prices.
In response, he sent in the army and initiated a fierce campaign against the MTI. Bourguiba's long rule,
widely popular in its early years except among traditionalist groups, had provoked an increasing but
passive opposition among Tunisians.
Bourguiba, long in declining health, became unable to mask his autocratic tendencies. National elections in
1986 were boycotted by the major opposition parties, and the National Front once again carried the vote.
In November 1987, amid widespread unrest and growing Islamist support, Bourguiba was declared
mentally unfit to rule and was removed from office. He was succeeded by General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali,
whom he had appointed as Prime Minister a month earlier.
President Ben Ali promised political liberalization and a transition to democracy. His early reforms
attempted to restore a national consensus; one of these, the National Pact signed in 1989, drew together
the ruling party, the legal opposition, the Islamists, and all the national organizations. Many political
parties were legalized, with the exception of the MTI (renamed Al-Nahda), but the 1989 national elections
still failed to introduce a multiparty competition. The president gained 99 percent of the vote, and the RDI
won all 141 seats in the legislature. Local elections in 1990, boycotted by opposition parties, were also
swept by the ruling party. Following early local electoral victories by Algerian Islamists in 1990 and
Islamist opposition to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the government began to crack down on Islamist
political activity.
Despite the initial easing of press controls and the release of political prisoners, the opposition soon
became disillusioned with the new regime. Subsequently, it turned against secular opposition and has
since been criticized for its abuse of human rights and its reliance on military and security forces.
Piecemeal electoral reforms have failed to produce any genuine form of power sharing or transfer of power
away from the president's party. Similarly, the media and national organizations and associations have lost
much of what little autonomy they wrested from the state, and Ben Ali's regime has increasingly been
subject to accusations of authoritarianism. The government, for its part, has claimed that democratization
must be a gradual process that cannot be allowed to destabilize or inhibit the processes of economic
liberalization and social consolidation.
Foreign Relations
Foreign relations under Habib Bourguiba were dominated by his personal conviction that Tunisia's future
lay with the West and, in particular, with France and the United States. There were, nonetheless, some
early crises including the French bombing raid on the Tunisian village of Saqiyat Sidi Yusuf in 1958, during
which France claimed the right to pursue Algerian rebels; the Bizerte incident of 1961, concerning the
continued military use of that port and airfield facility by France; and the suspension of all French aid in
1964-66 after Tunisia abruptly nationalized foreign-owned landholdings. These difficulties aside, Tunisia's
relations with France have been improving, as have relations with the United States, despite some
tensions with the latter over its involvement in the Gulf War and policies toward the developing world.
Alignment with the West was never allowed to interfere with positive trade policies toward the developing
world and what was then the Soviet bloc. Rather than balance East against West, Bourguiba maximized
Tunisia's advantages by maintaining good relations with both, thereby reducing the country's dependency
on either one. Bourguiba's pragmatism also extended to the Arab world. Rejecting ideological constraints,
he argued for the Arab recognition of Israel and Arab unity based on mutually advantageous cooperation
rather than political integration.
Under Ben Ali, Tunisia has followed much the same path. The need for regional security and the desire to
advance economic interests, especially trade and foreign investment, guides foreign policy. With the
uncertain future and stability of the Arab Maghreb Union, in the past few years Tunisia has concentrated
efforts on developing bilateral economic agreements with other Arab states, on promoting the Arab
League's Arab Free Trade Area, and in advancing regional economics. An agreement with the European
Union, which came into effect in 1998, has also tied Tunisia's economy and security to the Mediterranean
community. Attempts to diversify trading links have led to closer ties with the East and Southeast Asia,
and strong ties with the United States remain a linchpin in Tunisia's ability to present itself as a stable,
reliable, and moderate state. Tunisia is keen on supporting international organizations, in particular the
United Nations, which it sees as the protector of smaller states and the defender of international law.