Modern Tunisians are the descendents of indigenous Berbers and of people from numerous civilizations that have invaded, migrated to, and been assimilated into the population over the millenia. Recorded history in Tunisia begins with the arrival of Phoenicians, who founded Carthage and other North African settlements in the 8th century BC. Carthage became a major sea power, clashing with Rome
for control of the Mediterranean until it was defeated and captured by the Romans in 146 B.C. The Romans ruled and settled in North Africa until the 5th century when the Roman Empire fell and Tunisia was invaded by European tribes, including the Vandals. The Muslim conquest in the 7th century transformed Tunisia's and the make-up of its population, with subsequent waves of migration from around
the Arab and Ottoman world, including significant numbers of Spanish Moors and Jews at the end of the 15th century. Tunisia became a center of Arab culture and learning and was assimilated into the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. It was a French protectorate from 1881 until independence in 1956, and retains close political, economic, and cultural ties with France.
Tunisia's independence from France in 1956 ended a protectorate established in 1881. President Bourguiba, who had been the leader of the independence movement, declared Tunisia a republic in 1957, ending the nominal rule of the former Ottoman Beys. In June 1959 Tunisia adopted a Constitution modeled on the French system, which established the basic outline of the highly centralized
presidential system that continues today. The military was given a defined defensive role, which excluded participation in politics. Starting from independence, President Bourguiba placed strong emphasis on economic and social development, especially education, the status of women, and the creation of jobs, policies continued under the Ben Ali administration. The results were strong social
indicators--high literacy and school attendance rates, low population growth rates, and relatively low poverty rates--and generally steady economic growth rates. These pragmatic policies have contributed to social and political stability.
Progress toward full democracy has been slow. Over the years President Bourguiba stood unopposed for re-election several times and was named "President for life" in 1974 by a constitutional amendment. At the time of independence, the Neo-Destourian Party (later the PSD)--enjoying broad support because of its role at the forefront of the independence movement--became the sole legal party when
opposition parties were banned until 1981.
When President Ben Ali came to power in 1987 he promised greater democratic openness and respect for human rights, signing a "national pact" with opposition parties. He oversaw constitutional and legal changes, including abolishing the concept of president for life, the establishment of presidential term limits, and provision for greater opposition party participation in political life. But
the ruling party, renamed the Democratic Constitutional Assembly (RCD), continued to dominate the political scene because of its historic popularity and the advantage it enjoyed as the ruling party. Ben Ali ran for re-election unopposed in 1989 and 1994, and won 99.44% of the vote in 1999 when he faced two weak opponents. The RCD won all seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 1989, and won all of
the directly elected seats in the 1994 and 1999 elections. However, constitutional amendments in those years provided for the distribution of additional seats to the opposition parties in 1999. Currently, five opposition parties share 33 of the 182 seats in the Chamber. A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben Ali to allow him to run for a fourth term in 2004, created
a second parliamentary chamber, and provided for other changes.
Tunisia is a leader in the Arab world in promoting the legal and social status of women. A Personal Status Code was adopted shortly after independence in 1956 which, among other things, gave women full legal status (allowing them to run and own businesses, have bank accounts, and seek passports under their own authority) and outlawed polygamy. The government required parents to send girls to
school, and today more than 50% of university students are women. Rights of women and children were further enhanced by 1993 reforms, which included a provision to allow Tunisian women to transmit citizenship even if they are married to a foreigner and living abroad. The government has supported a remarkably successful family planning program that has reduced the population growth rate to just
over 1% per annum, contributing to Tunisia's economic and social stability.