Tunisia Modern History

By | January 30, 2023

Tunisia is a country located in Northern Africa. With the capital city of Tunis, Tunisia has a population of 11,818,630 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. Independence efforts in Tunisia during the first decades of the 20th century resulted in the French giving the area self-government after the Second World War. By the mid-1950s, independence was proclaimed. Under President Habib Bourguiba, industry was nationalized and agriculture was collectivized while relations increased with the Eastern Bloc. In the 1980s, strong popular protests were triggered after several years of economic crisis and Bourguiba was deposed in a coup. Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali took over as new leader and built up an authoritarian regime that will last for many years. In 2011 Ben Ali was overthrown in connection with the so-called Jasmine Revolution and a shaky democratization process began.

In the early 1900s, demands for democratic reforms began to gain a foothold – a development that was strengthened as Arab countries in the East became independent after World War II. A loosely organized nationalist movement, al-Hizb al-Hurr al-Dusturi (Free Constitution Party), often called Destour, was formed in the 1920s. In 1934, a faction led by the young lawyer Habib Bourguiba broke down and founded the Néo-Destour party, which was quickly supported in all parts of Tunisia. Néo-Destour gradually became more radical in appearance and demanded full independence.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Tunisia. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

After World War II, opposition to colonialism became more violent. France responded by giving Tunisia more autonomy, but that was not enough to appease the independence. In 1956, Paris finally agreed to give Tunisia independence. Shortly thereafter, elections were held for a congregation to draft a constitution. All the places in the congregation were occupied by people who were loyal to Néo-Destour. In 1957 the congregation deposed the bey (see Older history) and turned Tunisia into a republic with Habib Bourguiba as head of state. Two years later, a constitution was adopted and a presidential office with far-reaching powers was established. In the general elections that followed, Bourguiba was elected president and Néo-Destour won all the seats in parliament. For the first time after independence, Bourguiba made sure to give women the right to vote at the same time as he abolished polygamy, banned marriage for people under 17, and gave women the same right to divorce as men. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Tunisia.


In 1961 Bourguiba launched a pragmatic form of socialism he called Destour socialism. Central control of the economy was initiated. Industries and banks were nationalized, as was the land distributed to the collective. Stores and distribution companies were made cooperatives. The measures made the European population mass exodus. The economic transformation went hand in hand with investment in education as well as social and legal reforms. From 1963 became the only allowed party Néo-Destour, which in 1964 changed its name to the Socialist Destour Party (PSD). Careful contacts were made with the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union provided some assistance. But Tunisia remained alliance-free and came to pursue Western-friendly foreign policy – not least because most of the foreign aid came from the West.

Massive protests and stagnant economics left the strict state control of the economy abandoned in 1969. A new policy, called Infitah, encouraged private initiatives and welcomed foreign investment. Investments were directed to the export sector – primarily the extraction and export of oil, crude phosphate and phosphate products. The 1970s were a time of strong growth.

In 1975, Bourguiba was elected president for life and through constitutional changes his power increased further. Opposition to the ever-more powerful Bourguiba was gathered in the powerful trade union movement UGTT. The second half of the 1970s became concerned with strikes that were being wounded by the government.


Bourguiba lifted the ban on other parties in 1981 provided they abstained from violence and religious fanaticism, which precluded movements that wanted to transform Tunisia into a state based on Islam. Islamist groups received support from sections of the population who were dissatisfied with social conditions. The government met the Islamists with arrests and harassment. At the end of 1981, parliamentary elections were held. PSD won all seats in parliament. None of the other parties participating managed to get more than five percent of the vote, which Bourguiba had set as a requirement for them to be officially recognized.

During the 1980s, the long period of growth was broken. Oil production began to decline and agriculture was hit by drought. When bread prices more than doubled in January 1984, riots broke out, breadcrumbs fueled by Islamists. A state of emergency was announced and soldiers were called in to chase the protesters. After 89 people were killed and close to 1,000 injured, the government took back the decision to raise prices. The troubled situation worsened in the context of an acute economic crisis following the 1986 oil price crash, when Tunisia was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help. New popular protests were answered by the regime with mass arrests of union leaders and Islamists. The latter were accused of planning to overthrow Bourguiba in collaboration with foreign powers. Several Islamists were sentenced to death.

Ben Ali to power

Habib Bourguiba was deposed in 1987 at the age of 84 by his closest men. These led a group of doctors to declare the president unable to govern the country because of senility. The Prime Minister and former General Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali were installed as the new president. Despite his reputation as tough, Ben Ali initiated some domestic political liberalization. Thousands of opposition were released and more parties were allowed to operate. To mark the new line, the PSD changed its name to the Democratic Constitutional Collection (RCD). The legacy of Bourguiba began to be erased. From the national anthem, references to the president were deleted, statues of him moved and streets and cities named after Bourguiba were renamed.

Ben Ali initially tried to approach the Islamists. However, the largest party, Ennahda (al-Nahda), remained banned even though its supporters could stand as independent candidates in the 1989 elections. consensus politics and moved to try to quell the Islamists with harsher methods. In 1992, 46 Ennahda leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment, among others accused of conspiring against the president. The following year, party leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi was forced into exile. At the same time as the president sharpened the attitude of the Islamists, he tried to improve relations with the legal opposition. Although the opposition parties only received a total of two percent of the vote in the 1994 elections, they could, through a new electoral system,

In the presidential election held at the same time, only Ben Ali was running for office. Human rights activist Moncef Marzouki and lawyer Abderrahman al-Hani, who had intended to stand, were arrested before the election and held captive until it was over.

In the fall of 1995, Ben Ali highlighted that he did not allow criticism from the legal opposition. He seized Mohammed Mouaeda, leader of the Social Democrats’ Movement (MDS), the largest opposition party in parliament. Mouaeda, who sent a regime-critical letter to the president, was sentenced to eleven years in prison and another MDS leader received five years in prison. The leadership of MDS was taken over by a power struggle within the party of regime-friendly Ismail Boulahia. In December 1996, Mouaeda and his party mate were released on conditionally following international protests.

Constitutional reforms

While Ben Ali fought hard against all real opposition, he realized the importance of outwardly encouraging an apparent multi-party system. In 1997, the president introduced a number of constitutional reforms, including the increase in parliamentary seats guaranteed to the opposition parties. In the autumn 1999 parliamentary elections, these 34 seats were distributed to five parties according to their voting share. However, RCD took all the mandates that were at stake while Ben Ali was re-elected president for a third term in the presidential election. After the election, about 600 political prisoners were released, most of whom were reported to be members of Ennahda.

By a constitutional change in 2002, Ben Ali was able to stand for the fourth time in the 2004 presidential election. He won both this election and the 2009 elections.

The Ben Ali regime’s hard grip was tolerated by many Tunisians because it meant stability and economic development. Many also sympathized with the regime’s fear that fundamentalist Muslims would drive Tunisia into the same chaos that had prevailed in Algeria. But beneath the surface there was growing dissatisfaction with political freedom, with the enrichment of leading politicians, with the anti-religious campaigns and with the pro-American foreign policy.

The Ben Ali regime often used the terrorist threat to justify its own violations of human rights, not least the persecution of suspected Islamists. But there was also a real terrorist threat. In 2002, 21 people, most of them German tourists, were killed in a suicide attack against a historic synagogue on the island of Djerba. The terror network al-Qaeda later took on the deed.

In the winter of 2006–2007, a dozen suspected Islamists were killed in clashes with security forces and weapons were seized. Assessors felt that the regime’s harsh treatment of Ennahda and its members led to increased support and support for more radical groups.

jasmine Revolution

A vegetable trader who set fire to himself in December 2010 became the start of the people’s uprising against Ben Ali’s regime – the so-called Jasmine Revolution. The uprising spread in the spring of 2011 to other North African countries and the Middle East. Mohammed al-Bouazizi’s suicide was a desperate act after he was stripped of his goods by the police and a protest against difficult living conditions. Young people went out into the streets to show sympathy. The event became a trigger for many Tunisians’ pent-up dissatisfaction with unemployment, corruption, high food prices and housing shortages.

In addition to young people, there were Islamists, trade union activists and other opposition activists. Police beat down the demonstrations and many people were killed. But the street garbage spread to Tunis and other major cities in January 2011. Demands were made for Ben Ali to resign, but his attempt to meet the protesters through promises of reforms and not to stand in the next presidential election was fruitless. On January 14, he fled abroad. More than 200 people were killed in connection with the uprising.

Parliament President Fouad al-Mebazzaa had to take over the presidential post temporarily. He commissioned Prime Minister Mohammed al-Ghannouchi to form a unifying government. The opposition was given several heavy ministerial posts, but some ministers from RCD were allowed to remain, which led to protests among the opposition and the streets of Tunis. Despite Prime Minister Ghannouchi and Interim President Mebazzaa leaving his party RCD and despite Ghannouchi excluding several ministers linked to RCD, the protests continued. It also did not help that the government showed willingness to settle with Ben Ali’s repressive regime by releasing political prisoners, arresting relatives of Ben Ali and demanding extradition from Saudi Arabia. When the protests against the government escalated and demanded new deaths, Ghannouchi bowed to the protesters’ demands and resigned. 84-year-old Béji Caïd Essebsi, former Foreign Minister of Bourgiba, was appointed new Prime Minister. Later, another five ministers resigned. The government made another concession by again allowing Ennahda, which has been banned for almost two decades. Party leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi had returned in January after many years in the country’s escape.

First free choice

In October elections were held for a Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with writing a new constitution and appointing a temporary government and president. The EU sent 150 observers to monitor Tunisia’s first free elections.

Ennahda, as many expected, became the largest party with just under 40 percent of the vote. The party formed a unity government with the center-left parties CPR, which came second in the elections, and Ettakatol (al-Takattul), which came in fourth place. In December, Hammadi al-Jebali from Ennahda was elected prime minister in the transitional government while CPR’s Moncef Marzouki became interim president.

Oppositions between extremist Islamists and more secular forces continued to create tensions. This was expressed not least in negotiations on the new constitution, where Islamists and secular groups stood far apart in both political and social issues. The Ennahda Islamist was wedged between democracy advocates and extreme Islamists. Ennahda promised the two non-religious coalition parties that no prohibition on alcohol or coercion was for women. At the same time, media reported on religiously motivated clashes between activists and extremist Islamists, who also held demonstrations demanding the introduction of Islamic law, Sharia.

The expectations of the elected Tunisian people who protested in the streets during the revolution were high: to deal with the corruption and solve the country’s economic problems. Unemployment had risen to 20 percent – double for young Tunisians – much as a result of stagnant growth in the wake of the revolution. The tourism industry had also been affected, while foreign investment, especially from Europe, was declining. The economic problems in the EU, Tunisia’s main export market, worsened the situation as exports also declined.

Political crisis

In early 2013, Tunisia was in a political crisis. Negotiations for a reshuffle of the coalition government to include more political forces led nowhere. When a prominent left-wing politician was shot to death on an open street, new street protests erupted. The political murder was the first since the revolution, and many in the opposition accused the ruling party Ennahda of being behind it. Prime Minister al-Jebali resigned and former Interior Minister Ari Larayedh was appointed new head of government.

When another opposition politician was assassinated in the summer of 2013, new demonstrations were held and a large number of members resigned from the Constituent Assembly. An alliance of opposition parties, the National Rescue Front, demanded that the Islamist-led government step down and be replaced by an expert government. The opposition accused the government of failing to put an end to extreme Islamists and to improve the economy. The government identified the extreme Salafist group Ansar al-Shariah as guilty of the murder (it was later stated that the perpetrators joined the Islamic State, IS). But Ennahda opposed the demands of the government’s resignation and instead wanted to call parliamentary and presidential elections.

After a while, however, the Islamist-led government gave in and gave the go-ahead to negotiate with the opposition to appoint a transitional government, which would then be commissioned to call elections. In January 2014, Prime Minister Larayedh resigned and was replaced by former Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa. Towards the end of the month, the Constituent Assembly could also adopt a new constitution. Eventually a new electoral law was also adopted and a decision was made to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in the fall of 2014.

An important effort to resolve the crisis and reach a compromise between the parties was the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which was awarded for this with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. The quartet, which was formed in 2013, consisted of the national organization UGTT, the employers’ organization Utica, the human rights organization LDTH and the Tunisian legal community.

Tunisia Modern History