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 BC.
The Romans ruled and settled in North Africa until the 5th century AD. That was when the Roman Empire fell and Tunisia was invaded by European tribes, including the Vandals.
The Muslim conquest in the 7th century transformed Tunisia and the make-up of its population. Subsequent waves of migration from around the Arab and Ottoman world included significant numbers of Spanish Muslims and Jews at the end of the 15th century.
Tunisia became a centre of Arab culture and learning and was assimilated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. It was a French protectorate from 1881 until independence in 1956. Tunisia retains close political, economic, and cultural ties with France.
Modern Tunisians are descendents of indigenous Berbers and of people from numerous civilisations who have invaded, migrated to, and been assimilated into the population over the millennia. Today, nearly all Tunisians (99% of the population) are Muslim.
There has been a Jewish population on the southern island of Djerba for 2,000 years, and there remains a small Jewish population in Tunis and other cities, which is mainly descended from those who fled Spain in the late 15th century. A small Christian community is dispersed throughout the country, and includes foreign residents, as well as a few hundred native-born citizens who have converted to Christianity. Small nomadic indigenous minorities have been mostly assimilated into the larger population.
Tunisia's independence from France in 1956 ended a protectorate established in 1881. President al-Habib Bourguiba, who had been the leader of the independence movement, declared Tunisia a republic in 1957, ending the nominal rule of the Ottoman Beys. In June 1959, Tunisia adopted a constitution modelled on the French system, which established the basics of a highly centralised presidential system. The military was given a defined defensive role, which excluded participation in politics.
Beginning from independence, President Bourguiba placed a strong emphasis on economic and social development - especially education, the status of women, and the creation of jobs - policies which continued under the Zine el-Abidine Ben'Ali presidential dictatorship. The result was strong social progress - high literacy and school attendance rates, low population growth rates, and relatively low poverty rates - and generally steady economic growth.
Over the years, President Bourguiba stood un-opposed for re-election several times and was named "President for Life" in 1974 by a constitutional amendment. In 1987, Ben'Ali deposed Bourguiba, promising greater democratic openness and respect for human rights. Although the ruling Socialist Destourian Party (PSD) was re-named the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), it continued to dominate the political scene. The RCD won all seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 1989, and won all of the directly elected seats in the 1994, 1999, and 2004 elections. President Ben'Ali ran for re-election un-opposed in 1989 and 1994.
In the multi-party era, he won 99.44% of the vote in 1999 and 94.49% of the vote in 2004. A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben'Ali which allowed him to run for a fifth term in 2009. He won with 89% of the vote (and 89% participation). The referendum also created a second parliamentary house, the Chamber of Advisers, and provided for other changes.
Lack of freedom characterised Tunisian politics under the Ben'Ali regime. The US State Department's annual human rights report consistently cited infringements on freedoms of assembly and expression, as well as reports of torture and abuse of prisoners (see his Ben'Ali's in gmt16TunisWhoApr19-10).
The oppressive political environment, coupled with extreme economic inequality, opaque political and economic decision-making and the government's insensitivity to popular demands for greater economic opportunity, gave rise to a popular revolution which began on Dec. 17, 2010 when Muhammad Bou'azizi, a young Tunisian vegetable vendor from the interior of the country, self-immolated to protest the government's confiscation of his produce. His subsequent death resulted in protests in his home-town of Sidi Bouzid, which quickly spread to other cities, including the capital.
On Jan. 14, 2011, following nearly two months of popular demonstrations and protests calling for his removal from office, Ben'Ali abdicated power and flew to Jeddah, leaving the country in the hands of a care-taker government. Shortly after Ben'Ali's departure, Parliament Speaker Fou'ad Mbazza' ascended to the position of interim president of Tunisia on the basis of Article 57 of the constitution. On the resignation of PM Muhammad Ghannouchi on Feb. 27, Mbazza' appointed former diplomat and cabinet minister Beji Qa'ed Essebsi to the position on Feb. 28, 2011 (see down16TunisWhoApr16-12).
Before Ben'Ali's Jan. 14, 2011 departure, Tunisia was a republic with a strong presidential system dominated by a single political party - the RCD which ruled for 25 years. The RCD was dissolved by judicial ruling on March 9, 2011. Under the former regime, the president was elected to five-year terms and regional governors and local administrators were appointed by the central government. There was also a bi-cameral legislative body. The judiciary was nominally independent and generally responded to executive direction, especially in politically sensitive cases.
The revolution ushered in nation-wide calls for political reform, including popular demands for a new constitution, being drafted by an elected National Constituent Assembly. That 217-member body was elected on Oct. 23, 2011 in a process which included thousands of domestic and hundreds of international observers. A new president and PM took office in December 2011. On Dec. 23, 2011, the Constituent Assembly confirmed a new cabinet comprised of 41 ministers (29 full ministers, 15 deputy ministers).
The political party affiliation break-down of Tunisia's current executive branch and cabinet is roughly proportional to the percentage of seats various political parties won during the Constituent Assembly election. The length and terms of office, the authority of the legislature, and separation of powers are subject to change under the new constitution.
The military has historically played a professional, apolitical role in defending the country from external threats. Since January 2011 and at the direction of the executive branch, the military has taken on increasing responsibility for domestic security and humanitarian crisis response. The number of legalised political parties in Tunisia has grown exponentially since the revolution. There are now over 100 legal parties, including several which existed under the former regime.
During Ben'Ali's rule, there were eight legal opposition parties - but only three, the PDP, FDTL, and Tajdid - functioned as independent opposition groups. The Islamist opposition an-ahda was deemed a "terrorist organisation" and banned by the Ben'Ali regime in 1991 and operated in exile in London, but quickly reasserted its position as a major political player following the party's legalisation by the post-Ben'Ali period.
While some older parties are well-established and can draw on previous structures, many of the 100-plus parties are small.