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Atlas Tunisia

Country (long form)
Republic of Tunisia
Total Area
63,170.17 sq mi
163,610.00 sq km
9,593,402 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
Arabic (official and one of the languages of commerce), French (commerce)
66.7% total, 78.6% male, 54.6% female (1995 est.)
Muslim 98%, Christian 1%, Jewish and other 1%
Life Expectancy
72.14 male, 75.36 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
1 Tunisian dinar (TD) = 1,000 millimes
GDP (per capita)
$5,500 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
services 55%, industry 23%, agriculture 22% (1995 est.)
petroleum, mining (particularly phosphate and iron ore), tourism, textiles, footwear, food, beverages
olives, grain, dairy products, tomatoes, citrus fruit, beef, sugar beets, dates, almonds
Arable Land
textiles, mechanical goods, phosphates and chemicals, agricultural products, hydrocarbons
machinery and equipment, hydrocarbons, chemicals, fuel, food
Natural Resources
petroleum, phosphates, iron ore, lead, zinc, salt, arable land
Current Environmental Issues
toxic and hazardous waste disposal is ineffective and presents human health risks; water pollution from raw sewage; limited natural fresh water resources; deforestation; overgrazing; soil erosion; desertification
Telephones (main lines in use)
628,000 (1997)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
50,000 (1998)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
4 (1999)

Tunisia may be the smallest country in North Africa, but its strategic position has ensured it an eventful history. The Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and French have all picked at the region at one point. The earliest humans to set foot here were probably a group of Homo erectus who stumbled onto the place a few hundred thousand years ago as they journeyed northwest across the Sahara from East Africa. It's believed that in those days what is now arid desert was covered in forest, scrub and savanna grasses, much like the plains of Kenya and Tanzania today. The earliest hard evidence of human inhabitation was unearthed near the southern oasis town of Kebili and dates back about 200,000 years.

The Phoenicians first set up shop in Tunisia at Utica in 1100 BC, using it as a staging post along the route from their home port of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon) to Spain. They went on to establish a chain of ports along the North African coast, the most important of which included Hadrumètum (Sousse) and Hippo Diarrhytus (Bizerte). But the port that looms largest in history books is Carthage, arch enemy of Rome. It became the leader of the western Phoenician world in the 7th century and the main power in the Western Mediterranean in the early 5th century. The city's regional dominance lasted until the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, which began in 263 BC and ended in 146 BC with Carthage utterly razed and its people sold into slavery.

The Tunisian territory became Roman property after the war. The emperor Augustus refounded Carthage as a Roman city in 44 BC, naming it the capital of Africa Proconsularis, Rome's African holdings. Agriculture became all-important, and by the 1st century AD, the wheat-growing plains of Tunisia were supplying over 60% of the empire's requirements. The Romans went on to found cities and colonies across Tunisia's plains and coastline; today, they're Tunisia's principal tourist attractions.

By the beginning of the 5th century, with Rome's power in terminal decline, the Vandals decided the area was ripe for plucking. Within 10 years, they'd taken Carthage as their capital and began to, well, vandalise. Their exploitative policies alienated them from the native Berber population, who in turn formed small kingdoms and began raiding the Vandal settlements. The Byzantines of Constantinople, who pulled the territory from the Vandals in 533 and kept it for the next 150 years, fared no better.

Islam burst onto the scene in the 7th century, when the Arab armies swept out of Arabia, quickly conquering Egypt. The Arabs had taken all of North Africa by the start of the 8th century, and, with Kairouan as its capital, the region became a province of the fast-expanding Islamic empire controlled by the caliphs of Damascus.

The Berbers adopted Islamic religious teachings readily enough, but they riled under their harsh treatment by the Arabs. Their uprisings continued until 909, when a group of Berber Shiites, the Fatimids, glommed together disaffected Berber tribes and took North Africa back from the Arabs. Their capital was raised on the coast at Mahdia, but the unity was to be short-lived. When some of the tribes returned to the Sunni mainstream, the tribes began to fight one another and North Africa was slowly reduced to ruins.

Conflicts arose again when North Africa was caught in the middle of the rivalry between Spain and the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the 16th century. Tunis changed hands half a dozen times in some 50 years, before the Turks took it in 1574 and it became an Ottoman territory. Ottoman power lasted through to the 19th century, when France became the new power in the western Mediterranean and Tunis came under increasing pressure to conform to their European ways.

The French granted independence to Tunisia in 1956, and Habib Bourguiba, who led the Independence movement, became the first Tunisian president. In accordance with the pattern prevailing across the developing world in that era, the liberator turned dictator. His style was marked by a strong anti-Islamic fundamentalist stance. He was finally ousted from power in a coup by Zine el-Abadine ben Ali in 1987 on grounds of senility.

Bourguiba's successor has continued to clamp down on Islamic fundamentalism, and - despite early liberalising tendencies, such as the introduction of some press freedoms - displays a similar penchant for consolidating his own power base. Today the main opposition parties remain disenfranchised and media censorship is commonplace. In elections held in October 1999, ben Ali won by a whopping 99.44% - a figure widely believed to be fabricated. Bourguiba's death in April 2000 inspired widespread and open dissent against Ben Ali's regime, but the government remained in control. Its attempts in 2002 to extend ben Ali's term in office were widely branded anti-democratic. Two years later, a human rights organisation alleged that the government has held up to 40 political prisoners in solitary confinement for some years, an allegation quickly denied by Tunisian authorities.