Following World War II, a strong nationalist movement in Tunisia engaged in a protracted struggle against French colonial rule. On 20 March 1956, following arduous, delicate, and behind-the-scenes negotiations, an independence protocol was signed by French Foreign Minister Christian Paul Francis Pineau and Tunisian Prime Minister Tahar ben Amara. On 25 July 1957, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly ousted the bey, Muhammad VIII al-Amin, who was sympathetic to France and had long been unpopular; declared the formation of the Tunisian Republic; and elected Habib Bourguiba as president.
Bourguiba, who ruled until 1987, was decidedly pro-Western in his ideas and foreign policy. He also maintained cordial relations with France. As he tried to transform Tunisia into a modern, democratic state, he was backed by the majority of young, Westernized Tunisian intellectuals. His main political support came from the well-organized Neo-Destour Party, which he had founded in 1934, that constituted the country's chief political force.
Bourguiba was not without political rivals, however. Early in his presidency, he was strongly challenged by Salah ben Youssef, who leaned toward Egypt and Pan-Arabism and who championed the continuation of Tunisia's ancient Islamic traditions. Youssef was generally supported by conservative, wealthy urbanites and traditionalist Muslims.
The constitution of Tunisia was introduced in 1959 and amended in 1988. It provides for a presidential system not unlike that of the current French Fifth Republic. The president is elected by popular vote for a five-year term, while the prime minister is appointed by the president.
During the Cold War, Tunisia aligned itself squarely with the West and was considered a strong American ally. During the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, for example, Bourguiba refused to sever relations with the United States over its support of Israel, despite considerable pressure to do so from other Arab states.
In spite of its support of Western-style democracy, the Bourguiba regime exerted strong, centralized authority. The economy was closely controlled by Tunis, and as fears of Islamic fundamentalism increased, especially after the late 1970s, the government increasingly relied on censorship and illegal detentions to smother radical movements. Bourguiba's heavy-handedness and frail health combined to bring about his ouster on 7 November 1987 during a bloodless coup led by General Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who succeeded him as president.
In recent years, under Ben Ali's tenure, Tunisia has taken a moderate, nonaligned stance in its foreign relations. Domestically, it has sought to diffuse rising pressures for a more open political system while at the same time dealing with increased Islamic fundamentalist activities and growing anti-Western sentiments. These efforts have resulted in significant government-sponsored repression and a deteriorating human rights record.
Tunisia's principal industries have been agriculture, mining, tourism, and light manufacturing. Petroleum is the chief mineral resource. Government control of economic affairs, while still heavy, has gradually moved toward privatization, simplified tax codes, and a more prudent approach to debt management. Since the late 1990s, Tunisia's economy has witnessed significant growth, which has begun to attract foreign investment. In 1995, Tunisia also signed an agreement with the European Union (EU) to remove trade barriers over the next decade. Broader privatization, increased government efficiency, and further reductions in the trade deficit are among the challenges that still lie ahead.
Nilly Kamal and Mark Sanders
Mosaad, Niveen, and Ali Helal. Al-Nozom Al-Siaseya Al-Arabya Kadaya Al-Estemrar wa Al-Taghaior [Arab Political Systems: Issues of Continuity and Change]. Beirut: Center for Arab Unity, 1999.; Perkins, Kenneth. A History of Modern Tunisia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.; Salem, Norma. Habib Bourguiba, Islam, and the Creation of Tunisia. London: Croom Helm, 1984.