PARIS – Tunisia, one of the Arab League’s 22 members, is in the throes of a severe and profound crisis, albeit possibly one with a favorable resolution. It is the smallest North African country, covering 163,000 square kilometers – more or less twice the size of Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg – and containing a population of 10.5 million.
It is also full of charm and moderation in terms of its climate, history, and culture. It once was the pillar of the cultural dynamism and influence of the Roman Republic and Empire. The first African region to be Christianized, it was the land of Saint Augustine and the main source for Catholic evangelism in Africa. Originally mainly Berber, it was conquered by the Arabs, Islamized, and became for centuries a dependency of the Sublime Porte, and therefore Turkish.
It became a French protectorate, not a colony – as in the case of neighboring Algeria – in the nineteenth century. That difference helps explain the relatively greater preservation of Tunisia’s social structures and local traditions.
Upon achieving independence in 1956, Tunisia adopted a French-style republican constitution that established a presidential system of government. The first president, Habib Bourguiba, was the leader of the liberation movement, which emerged victorious much more quickly – and much less violently – than its counterpart in Algeria. A highly Westernized leader, Bourguiba maintained the secular character of the state that he took over from France, as well as many of its economic ties with the West (particularly France, of course), in a much more committed way than Algeria did after it gained independence.