Tunisia, wedged between Algeria and Libya on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, is the smallest of the North African states.
Over the millennia Tunisia has, at one time or another, been dominated by many of the world’s historical great powers, from the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines to the Arabs, Ottoman Turks and French.
Quick Facts on Tunisia
POPULATION: 10.6 million
CAPITAL: Tunis, population 760,000
RELIGION: Sunni Islam is the faith of over 98 per cent of the population. There are also small groups of Jews and Catholics.
LANGUAGE: Arabic is the official language; French and Berber (Tamazight) are also spoken.
GEOGRAPHY: On the northern Mediterranean coast of Africa, with Algeria to the west and Libya to the east, Tunisia covers 164,169 sq km (63,378 sq miles). The south is mostly semi-arid or desert.
LITERACY RATE: 74.3 per cent (2004)
Source: Agencies, CIA World Factbook
Carthage, founded by Phoenicians in the first millennium BCE, became the richest seaport of ancient times and a major city in the Roman Empire. Its remains survive as a tourist attraction in a suburb of Tunis, the Tunisian capital.
By the beginning of the 19th century, virtually all of the region’s inhabitants spoke Arabic. Berber, the earlier language of the Maghreb, survived in Tunisia in only a few pockets, mainly in the extreme south.
In 1956 Tunisia, under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, won independence from France. Under Bourguiba’s rule, Tunisia became one of the most socially liberal Arab countries. Polygamy was prohibited, women were given broader legal rights and the country’s public education system was reformed.
Since independence, Tunisia has had only had two presidents. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took over as president in 1987 after having Bourguiba – 84 years old at the time – declared medically unfit to rule.
Under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali, Tunisia took a moderately pro-Western stance. In 2011, US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that the US had known Ben Ali’s regime was deeply corrupt, but supported him nevertheless.
Tunisia has a special relationship with France, its former colonial ruler, and France remains Tunisia’s most important trading partner. Like the US, France also supported Ben Ali’s regime. However, when Ben Ali attempted to flee to France on January 14, the French government refused him entry. Ben Ali escaped to Saudi Arabia instead.
Under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, Tunisia also attempted to remain close with its Arab neighbours. The country hosted the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from 1982 to 1993. In 1985, the Israeli air force attacked the PLO’s Tunis headquarters, killing dozens.
Before the uprising earlier this year, Tunisia was one of the most prosperous countries in the region, surprising analysts who assumed a popular uprising could not take place in such a country. Tourists came for Tunisia’s warm weather, its Mediterranean beaches, and its ancient ruins. Underneath the seeming affluence, however, lay endemic government corruption and inequality between Tunisia’s cities and its impoverished rural areas.
Since the Tunisian uprising, its economy has greatly suffered. Tourism, which employs approximately 20 per cent of Tunisians, has declined by almost 50 per cent over the first six months of 2011. About 700,000 people are unemployed in Tunisia, representing about 16 per cent of the country’s work force. In May, the African Development Bank approved a loan of $500m to Tunisia to meet the country’s immediate needs.
In December 2010, protests against the Ben Ali regime escalated when a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after being humiliated by a government official. Demonstrations grew in size, spread to the capital, Tunis, and on January 14 Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia.
Since Ben Ali’s departure an interim government has ruled. Protests have continued intermittently since. On October 23 an election will be held for a Constituent Assembly that will rewrite the Tunisian constitution and appoint a new government. 81 parties and hundreds of independent candidates will compete for the Constituent Assembly’s 217 seats.