Tunisia is bounded by Algeria to the west and southwest, by Libya to the southeast, and by the Mediterranean Sea to the east and north. Used as a Roman, Arab, Turk, and French trading post and regional command centre, this country covers over 160,000 square kilometres and is home to 10.6 million people. The capital of Tunis is home to nearly 800,000 people, though over 60% of the population lives in urban centres. The large majority of Tunisians are Arab Muslims, though due to its History as a former French colony, there are also European Christian and Jewish communities throughout the region as well.
According to Greek legend, Dido, a princess of Tyre, was the first outsider to settle among the native tribes of what is now Tunisia when she founded the city of Carthage in the 9th Century BCE. The city of Carthage fought a series of wars with its rival, Rome. Following the Punic Wars against the Carthaginians in 264–146 BCE. The region was ruled briefly by the Vandals and then the Byzantine Empire before being conquered by the Arabs in 647 CE. Although the Arabs initially unified North Africa, by 1230 a separate Tunisian dynasty had been established by the Ḥafṣids. Muslim Andalusians migrated to the area after having been forced out of Spain during the Reconquista, particularly following the defeat of the Muslim kingdom of Granada in 1492. By 1574, Tunisia was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, whose control of the region, always tenuous, had all but dissolved by the 19th century. Rome was dominant here in the mid-2nd Century BCE and ruled the region for the following 500 Years. In the 7th Century Arab conquerors converted the native Berber (Amazigh) population of North Africa to Islam. The area was ruled by a succession of Islamic dynasties and empires until coming under French colonial rule in the late 19th Century. After achieving independence in 1956, Tunisia pursued a progressive social agenda and sought to modernize its economy under two long-serving presidents, Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Only on July 25, 1957, a republic was declared.
The Country of Tunisia’s culture is highly diverse, in part because of long periods of Ottoman and then French rule but also because populations of Jews and Christians have lived among a Muslim majority for Centuries. Similarly, the Capital, Tunis, blends ancient Arab market places and mosques and modern-style office buildings into one of the most handsome and attractive cities, in the region. Other cities include: Sfax (Ṣafāqis), Sousse (Sūsah), and Gabès (Qābis) on the fertile coast and Kairouan (Al-Qayrawān) and El-Kef (Al-Kāf) in the arid interior. Tunisia became a protectorate of France by treaty rather than by outright conquest, as was the case in Algeria. Officially, the bey remained an absolute monarch: Tunisian ministers were still appointed, the government structure was preserved, and Tunisians continued to be subjects of the bey. Tunisia remains a unitary semi-presidential representative democratic republic; and is the only North African country classified as "Free" by Freedom House, and considered the only fully democratic state in the Arab World in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index.
Arabic is the official language, and most natives speak a dialect of Tunisian Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is taught in schools. The cultural Arabization of the country was largely completed by the end of the 12th Century, and currently only a tiny fraction of the population—most of them in the south—still speak one of the Berber languages. French, introduced during the protectorate (1881–1956), came into wider use only after independence, because of the spread of education.
Virtually the entire population is Muslim, and Islam. Christian and Jewish minorities have declined substantially in number since independence. (Religious diversity in this Country, allows both religions to freely practice their faiths!)
Tunisia has one of the lowest birth rates on the African continent—and by raising the social, economic, and legal status of women. Emigration has also helped depress the overall growth rate, with hundreds of thousands of Tunisians being employed abroad, notably in France and in the countries of the Middle East. Slightly less than half of the population is between 15 and 44 years of age. There average life expectancy is about 76 years!
The economy depends heavily on mineral exports, especially petroleum and phosphates, a growing manufacturing sector that has received much investment, and agricultural products. Tourism is also a significant source of revenue. After a brief trial period of socialism, in the 1960s, Tunisia shifted its economic doctrine toward a mixed planned and market economy. However, the economy fell into crisis in the early 1980s, the result of an overreliance on oil revenues, foreign aid, and labour remittances. In the mid-1980s a comprehensive program was introduced to remove and loosen restrictions to allow the economy to improve. This helped restore Tunisia’s international credit standing, stabilize public finances, reduce budget deficits and inflation, improve trade balances, and increase foreign and domestic investments.
Petroleum was discovered in the extreme south in 1964 at Al-Burmah (El-Borma) field. Although Tunisia’s deposits are much smaller than those of its larger neighbours, they are significant to the economy. As production fell in the 1980s, the government began developing several of the country’s smaller oil fields. Nearly a dozen deposits were being exploited by the early 1990s, the largest fields being Al-Burmah and Al-Dūlāb in southern Tunisia near the Algerian border, Sīdī al-Yatāʾim (Sidi el-Itayem) north of Sfax, the Ashtart field in the Gulf of Gabes, and the Tazarka (Tāzirkah) field in the Gulf of Hammamet.
In the early 1990s Tunisia’s petroleum reserves, which were estimated to be sufficient to maintain the country’s low rate of extraction for several decades, were proving to be insufficient. Since then, natural gas production has been significantly increased, and foreign investment has been encouraged in the sector. Major British investments in Al-Miskar field in the mid-1990s however, contributed to Tunisia’s achieving self-sufficiency in natural gas production. Like petroleum and despite new discoveries, the quantities of natural gas are small as compared with Libyan and Algerian production. In addition, Tunisia receives royalties on the gas that is pumped through a pipeline running through Tunisia, connecting the Algerian gas fields to Sicily. Most electricity is generated by thermal means, including newer plants fired by natural gas and fuel oil. Some solar power is also being utilized. Trade accounts for some one-fourth of GDP, and Tunisia relies heavily on its trade with Europe, with the EU accounting for the bulk of both exports and imports.
France is the most important trading partner, followed by Italy, Germany, and China. Tunisia often shows an annual trade deficit. In the late 1990s the country signed an agreement with the EU, under the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Program, that set in motion the creation of a free-trade area between Tunisia and the EU. Tunisia became a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1990 and joined the World Trade Organization upon its founding in 1995. The country is also a signatory of the Arab League’s Arab Free Trade Area. In addition, Tunisia is a member of the Arab Maghrib Union, which aims at economic integration among its member states. Tunisia’s most significant exports are textiles and leather products, electrical machinery, and crude and refined petroleum. Its major imports are consumer products, raw materials, machinery and electrical equipment, and food products. Unemployment in Tunisia has often been high, despite concerted efforts by the government to reduce the rate!
The network of roads and railways is sufficiently dense so that all cities of any importance are linked with the interior. Nearly four-fifths of roads are paved. Tunisia is connected by both road and rail to Algeria but only by road to Libya, since the railway ends at Gabès. Work is under way to modernize and extend the railway network. The principal port is Tunis–La Goulette (Ḥalq al-Wādī); other major ports include Sfax, Bizerte, Sousse, and, in the south, Gabès. An oil pipeline runs from Edjeleh, Algeria, to the port of La Skhira (Al-Ṣukhayrah) on the Gulf of Gabes. Despite the construction of an airport at Gafsa, regional airports at Monastir (Al-Munastīr), Jerba (Jarbah), Sfax, and Tozeur handle domestic or charter flights, and international air traffic is directed mainly through Tunis-Carthage International Airport.
Tunisia’s telecommunication services are controlled by Tunisie Télécom (founded in 1996), a state-owned entity that is responsible for maintaining and developing the country’s communications infrastructure. Tunisie Telecom has more than 6 million subscribers in the fixed and mobile telephony, in Tunisia and abroad. Tunisia signed the World Trade Organization Basic Telecommunications Services Agreement of 1997, which opened the country’s market, and its telecommunications infrastructure has expanded markedly since that time. Internet access is widespread, and cellular telephones far outnumber standard phone lines. Local communications are largely conducted over microwave radio links, while international transmission makes use of satellite networks and fibre-optic cables.
The Banque Central de Tunisie is the country’s central bank and issues the dinar, the national currency.