Tunisia was settled by the Phoenicians in the 12th century B.C. By the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. , the great city-state of Carthage (derived from the
Phoenician name for “new city”) dominated much of the western Mediterranean. The
three Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (the second was the most famous,
pitting the Roman general Scipio Africanus against Carthage's Hannibal) led to
the complete destruction of Carthage by 146 B.C.
Except for an interval of Vandal conquest in A.D. 439–533, Carthage was part of the Roman Empire until the
Arab conquest of 648–669. It was then ruled by various Arab and Berber
dynasties, followed by the Turks, who took it in 1570–1574 and made it part of
the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century. In the late 16th century, it was a
stronghold for the Barbary pirates. French troops occupied the country in 1881,
and the bey, the local Tunisian ruler, signed a treaty acknowledging it as a
Nationalist agitation forced France to recognize Tunisian independence and
sovereignty in 1956. The constituent assembly deposed the bey on July 25, 1957,
declared Tunisia a republic, and elected Habib Bourguiba as president. Bourguiba
maintained a pro-Western foreign policy that earned him enemies. Tunisia refused
to break relations with the U.S. during the Arab-Israeli War in June 1967.
Concerned with Islamic fundamentalist plots against the state, the government
stepped up efforts to eradicate the movement, including censorship and frequent
detention of suspects.
In 1987, the aged Bourguiba was declared mentally unfit to continue as
president and was removed from office in a bloodless coup. He was succeeded by
Gen. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, whose tenure has been marked by repression, a poor
human rights record, the rise in Islamic fundamentalism, and growing
anti-Western sentiments among the populace. Ben Ali was reelected in Oct. 1999
with 99% of the vote in an election criticized by many human rights observers.
In May 2000 Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Assembly Party swept local
elections with 92% of the vote, in a contest many opposition leaders boycotted.
However, Tunisia's economy continued to improve in the late 1990s, making the
country one of the most attractive in Africa for foreign investors. In May 2002,
a referendum passed that ended the three-term limit for the presidency. It
permitted Ben Ali, who has served as president for more than 15 years, to run
for two more terms. Opposition parties protested. In Oct. 2004, the president
was reelected with 94% of the vote. Ali won a fifth term in Oct. 2009, taking
89.6% of the vote.