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Tunisia, is a country situated on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. It is the northernmost African country and the smallest of the nations situated along the Atlas mountain range. Around forty percent of the country is composed of the Sahara desert, with much of the remainder consisting of particularly fertile soil, and a 1300-km coastline. Both played a prominent role in ancient times, first with the famous Phoenician city of Carthage, and later, as the Africa Province, which became known as the bread basket of the Roman Empire.
At the beginning of recorded history, Tunisia was inhabited by Berber tribes. Its coast was settled by Phoenicians starting as early as the 10th century BC. The city of Carthage was founded in the 8th century B.C. by settlers from Tyre, now in modern day Lebanon. Legend says that Queen Dido founded the city, as retold in the Roman Epic Aeneid. The settlers of Carthage brought their culture and religion from the Phoenicians and Canaanites.
After a series of wars with Greece in the 6th century BC, Carthage rose to power and eventually became the dominant civilization in the Mediterranean. The people of Carthage worshipped a pantheon of Middle Eastern gods including Baal and Tanit. Tanit's symbol, a simple female figure with extended arms and long dress, is a popular icon found in ancient sites. The founders of Carthage also established a Tophet which was altered in Roman times.
Though the Romans referred to the new empire growing in the city of Carthage as Punic or Phoenician the empire built around Carthage was an independent political entity from the other Phoenician settlements in the Western Mediterranean.
A Carthaginian invasion of Italy led by Hannibal during the Second Punic War, one of a series of wars with Rome, nearly crippled the rise of the Roman Empire. Carthage was eventually conquered by Rome in the 2nd century BC, a turning point which led to ancient Mediterranean civilization having been influenced mainly by European instead of African cultures. After the Roman conquest, the region became one of the granaries of Rome. It was conquered by the Vandals in the 5th century AD and reconquered by the commander Belisarius in the 6th century during the rule of Byzantine emperor Justinian.
In the 7th century the region was conquered by Arab Muslims, who founded the city of Kairouan. Successive Muslim dynasties ruled, interrupted by Berber rebellions. The reigns of the Aghlabids (9th century) and of the Zirids (from 972), Berber followers of the Fatimids, were especially prosperous. When the Zirids angered the Fatimids in Cairo (1050), the latter sent in the Banu Hilal tribe to ravage Tunisia.
The coasts were held briefly by the Normans of Sicily in the 12th century. In 1159, Tunisia was conquered by the Almohad caliphs. They were succeeded by the Berber Hafsids (c.1230 – 1574), under whom Tunisia prospered. In the late 16th century the coast became a pirate stronghold (see: Barbary States). In the last years of the Hafsids, Spain seized many of the coastal cities, but these were recovered by the Ottoman Empire. Under its Turkish governors, the Beys, Tunisia attained virtual independence. The Hussein dynasty of Beys, established in 1705, lasted until 1957.
In the mid-1800s, Tunisia's government under the rule of the Bey severely compromised its legitimacy by making several controversial financial decisions that led to its downfall. France began plans to take control of Tunisia when the Bey first borrowed large sums of money in an attempt to Westernize. This failing state facilitated the Algerian raids that occurred thereafter. The weakened Bey was powerless against these raids and unable to resist European colonization.
In 1878, a secret deal was made between the United Kingdom and France that decided the fate of the African country. Provided that the French accepted British control of Cyprus, recently given to the United Kingdom, the British would in turn accept French control of Tunisia. This satisfied the French and led to their assumption of control in 1880. Tunisia was formally made a French protectorate on May 12, 1881.
Before colonialism, Tunisia was ruled by a line of Beys until 1881. Up until this point the Beys of Tunisia borrowed money from Europe to finance modernization within Tunisia. When the local population resented tax rises to fund the repayment the country found itself bankrupt. It is at this point that France, Britain and Italy placed the finances of Tunisia in administration via an international agreement.
Initially, Italy was the country that demonstrated the most desire to have Tunisia as a colony having investment, citizens and geographic proximity as motivation. However this was rebuffed when Britain and France co-operated to prevent this during the years 1871 – 1878 ending in Britain supporting French influence in Tunisia in exchange for dominion over Cyprus. France still had the issue of Italian influence and thus decided to find an excuse for a pre-emptive strike. Using the pretext of a Tunisian incursion into Algeria, France marched an army of about 36,000 personnel which quickly advanced to Tunis and forced the Bey to make terms in the form of the 1881 Treaty of Bardo (Al Qasr as Sa'id), which gave France control of Tunisian governance and making it a de-facto French protectorate.
Tunisia enjoyed certain benefits from French rule; however, the desire for self-governance remained and in 1910 Ali Bach Hamba and Bechir Sfar created the group of young Tunisians which led to the 1920 group called the “Destour” (constitution) party. Keeping the new movement under control led the French to use a combination of carrot-and-stick tactics that worked well but did not halt the momentum for independence. In 1934, a younger, more fervent element of the Destour party called the Neo-Destour emerged, with Habib Bourguiba, Dr Mahmoud Materi, Tahar Sfar and Bahri Guiga as their leaders. This new party was immediately declared illegal by the French administration.
Habib Bourguiba spent a great deal of time in French prisons. However, this did little to stem his influence or halt the momentum for change. The Second World War played into Bourguiba’s hands as he was moved from Vichy French prisons to Rome, and then to Tunisia as the Axis powers courted his influence in Tunisia. Bourguiba never endorsed these requests. He did manage relocation to Tunisia and two months after this, the Allies claimed Tunisia.
In the following ten years, the struggle for independence continued and gained momentum. Bourguiba was again incarcerated from 1952 – 1954, which in turn caused an outbreak of terrorist attacks by supporters. In 1954, things changed abruptly when Pierre Mendes-France became the leader of the French government and pursued a policy of pulling out from burdensome French colonies, with Tunisia in this category. This resulted in the April 1955 agreement which handed internal autonomy to Tunisian hands while international relations were managed by France, a similar situation to the Turkish Bey method of governance in pre-1881.
The Neo-Detour were now in control, but Bourguiba refused to take the helm until the French relinquished all control over Tunisia. He did not have to wait long, as the terrible Algerian War of Independence changed the French desire for colonialism, leading to the abolition of the Treaty of Bardo and Tunisia gaining full independence in March 20, 1956.
Sources: Wikipedia and CIA World Factbook
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