With a surface area of 163,610 km2 Tunisia is the smallest country in North Africa, a "buffer state" between Algeria and Libya, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Nearly 40% of Tunisia's territory is covered by the Sahara Desert.
The vast majority of the 10.1 million Tunisians live in urban areas. The rural population is concentrated in the prosperous and fertile agricultural regions in the northeast and in the Sahel. As for the Berbers, they live in a few isolated communities established in the south of the country.
Tunis, the capital, from which the country derives its name, is also the primary city with a population of 730,000 or 2 million counting the metropolitan area which then accounts for one-fifth of the countries total population.
The official language is Arabic. Linguistically Tunisia is the most homogenous of the countries in North Africa. French is taught as a secondary language in schools and is widely used in commerce and administration. Islam is the state religion with 99% of the population being Sunni.
Early in its history Tunisia was a Phoenician colony. In the 5th Century B.C., Carthage controlled the commerce of the central Mediterranean. Tunisia was first part of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire after having been invaded by the Vandals in 439 B.C. The Arabs, propagators of Islam, had progressed to North Africa by the middle of the 7th Century. Founded in 670, the city of Kairouan became an important military base protecting the invading troops. This city also had important religious influence as a center of Muslim culture. Islam therefore rapidly infiltrated the Berber tribes. In 698 the Arabs seized Carthage and established the city of Tunis.
In the 15th Century Tunisia which was known during this era as Ifriqiya or Asia Minor, made up a province of the Arab and Muslim Empires. Between 1148 and 1160 the Normans placed Tunis under their control. After a short Moroccan domination, Ifriqiya became once again a part of the empires directed by Bagdad and Cairo. The provincial governments meanwhile were conducted locally by Berber tribes. At the beginning of the 16th Century Spain and the Ottoman Turks disputed over control of Tunisia. The Ottomans ended Spanish domination in 1574 and Tunisia became a Berber state. Following a brief occupation of the Tunisian territory the Otttomans finally recognized de facto Tunisian independence. It then became a monarchy governed officers of the Ottoman occupation force. After the occupation of Algeria by France, Tunisia was controlled simultaneously by France, Great Britain and Italy.
In 1883 Tunisia became a French protectorate. Although the monarchy was maintained the government was also under French control. French and Italian colonization went into effect on a grand scale and the most fertile lands were nationalized and awarded to Europeans. The first grass roots militant efforts for independence began in 1920. In 1934 the Neo-Dustour or New Constitution Party, led by the lawyer Habib Bourguiba, revived the Tunisian Nationalist Movement.
In 1950 France undertook political reforms destined to permit Tunisia to enjoy an internal autonomy and to work in cooperation with France. On March 20, 1956, Tunisia succeeded in obtaining independence and Bourguiba became Prime Minister and later President after the abolition of the monarchy by the National Assembly July 25, 1957. On November 7, 1987 General Zine el-Abdine ben Ali dismissed President Bourguiba for his inability to govern and thus succeeded him as president.
In 1989, he was elected president of the Republic, reelected in 1994, 1999, 2004 (following a constitutional amendment) and in 2009, although in 2009 he didn't attain his usual level of 90% of votes. President Ben Ali maintains a tight grip on the presidency and continues to respond to mounting Islamicism with implacable pressure. He is maintaining relations with the West while thwarting the pressure of Islamists and at the same time emphasizing the Arab and Islamic character of Tunisia.In 1989 he was elected president, reelected in 1994, 1999, 2004 (following a constitutional amendment) and 2009 where he did not reach the usual majority of 90% of voters.
In early 2011, the "Jasmine" revolution forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee from his country to Saudi Arabia (January 14). That a head of state was thus obliged to relinquish power and flee the country is a first in the history of Arab countries.
The Tunisian revolution began December 17 2010 with the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, a town of 40,000 in the center of the country. This street vendor killed himself to protest against unemployment and police brutality. His death was the spark that triggered dozens of protests around the country which were repressed by the police with unusual violence. Abandoned by an autocratic and corrupt régime, the population has done its utmost to force the departure of the dictator and his family which had gradually succeeded in controlling the economy of the country. In total, according to the UN Committee on Human Rights the troubles caused 219 deaths and 510 injuries.
The acting president, Fouad Mebazaa, announced "a complete break with the past" and his desire to meet "all the legitimate aspirations of the revolution, freedom and dignity." But the transition has not been easy. Prime Minister Ghannouchi, already forced to form a new government from which have been excluded key representatives of the old regime, was forced to resign on February 28, after further street protests that produced three victims. The protesters said that he was too close to Ben Ali. His successor, aged 84, Beji Caid Essebsi, already served the state at the time of the father of its independence, Habib Bourguiba. He has formed a government of technocrats bringing together a core of recognized expertise. At the same time, the Court of First Instance in Tunis announced the dissolution of the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally), party of ousted President Ben Ali founded in 1988 and considered by many as a symbol of repression.
The first six months of transition have remained tense, interspersed with incidents. Elections for a Constituent Assembly, originally scheduled July 24, are finally set for Sunday, October 23 for logistical reasons.
For his part, former President Ben Ali has been charged with 93 criminel charges including some civil justice (illegal possession of foreign currency, weapons and drugs) and other military justice (and intentional homicide cases torture).
The Christian Community
Various reports would lead one to believe that there are 2,000 practicing Protestants in Tunisia but local Christian leaders put the number closer to 600. The government officially recognizes all Christian and Jewish organizations established before the country's independence in 1956. However, it does not authorize the planting of churches by other groups outside of this recognition. Despite the fact that the government allows churches to operate openly only the Catholic Church is recognized as a legal religious institution next to Islam.
While no law exists preventing the change of religion, there exists a powerful social pressure against a Muslim's conversion to another religion. Muslims who convert face social ostracism as well as bureaucratic harassment or threats from the authorities.
The government does not allow the creation of political parties based on religion and prohibits the proselytism of Muslims. Those found guilty of this risk expulsion or denial of the renewal of their residency. Generally speaking the government does not grant permission to publish or distribute Christian materials in Arabic.In January 2011, the Christian Association Open Doors, which specializes in defending the oppressed Church and Christians in the world, published its traditional index of persecution. There has been a deterioration in the situation of believers in Tunisia which is ranked 37th in the list of 50 countries where faith in Christ costs the most, the country previously held the 43rd spot.
The "Jasmine" revolution that ousted President Ben Ali has brought a new breath of freedom throughout the country in early 2011. Tunisian Christians hope to benefit from its results.