The French Protectorate (1881-1956)
On May 12, 1881, the then ruler Sadik Bey and the French government signed the Treaty of Bardo, in which Tunisia grants France far-reaching rights and surrenders its foreign policy powers to the protectorate. Despite revolts in the south of the country, the French managed to consolidate their position, so that in 1883 they signed a second treaty, the Treaty of La Marsa, with Ali Bey, Sadok Bey’s successor. In addition to the assumption of debts by France, this also provided for extensive domestic political powers. The Bey had to surrender almost all power to the French governor, so that the Tunisian monarchs held a purely representative position during the protectorate.
Economically, Tunisia developed positively. Banks and businesses were established, and when phosphate and iron ore were discovered in the south, the French built a railroad, so mining began in the late 19th century. According to cheeroutdoor, the economic development benefited France more than the Tunisians themselves.
The colonial power also introduced a bilingual school system that allowed school leavers to study at French universities. At the same time, the University of the Zitouna Mosque in Tunis, the most important university in Tunisia to date, introduced more secular subjects. Although many Tunisians were positive about the modernization movements themselves, they demanded that they should be run by the Tunisians themselves and not by France.
At the beginning of the 20th century, civil society organizations such as the Jeunes Tunisiens formed, first in Tunis and later in other cities in the country, and resistance against France increased. One of the voices of this movement was the young poet Abu el-Kacem el-Chebbi, who in his famous poem “To the tyrants of the world” criticized the French rulers without explicitly naming them. In
1920, Tunisian nationalists founded the Destour- Party (Constitution). In 1934, the more modern, secularly oriented Neo-Destour party split off under the leadership of, among others, the young lawyer and later state founder Habib Bourguiba.
In 1937 the Neo-Destour leadership negotiated with Leon Blum about possible Tunisian independence, but these negotiations failed. During the Second World War, the French colonial rulers in Tunisia initially supported the Vichy regime. When Moncef Bey succeeded the throne in 1942, however, he clearly opposed the general resident appointed by Vichy. From the autumn of 1942, the south of Tunisia became the scene of fighting between Rommel’s Africa Corps and American and French troops. Moncef Bey tries to be as neutral as possible and to protect the population.
In 1940 the Vichy regime extradited Habib Bourguiba, who had quickly become one of the leading figures against the Protectorate, to fascist Rome in the hope that he would oppose the French Resistance. However, Bourguiba called for support from the Allies in 1942. When he returned to Tunisia after the end of World War II, he continued the struggle for Tunisian independence.
The Tunisian independence movement
After 1945 the clashes in Tunisia increased in scale and number. Negotiations with the Robert Schumann government failed in 1951 and the Neo-Destour called for armed resistance. The murder of the union leader Farhat Hached of the colonialist terrorist organization La Main Rouge 1953 caused the protests to flare up. Habib Bourguiba, who lived in Cairo for three years for fear of arrest, was placed under house arrest until 1954 on his return. In 1954, France guaranteed Tunisia internal autonomy, which significantly calmed the situation in the country. In 1955, Prime Ministers Tahar Ben Ammar and Edgar Faure signed the Franco-Tunisian treaties. Tunisia gained independence on March 20, 1956, but France retained control of the military base in the northern Tunisian city of Bizerte.
Habib Bourguiba’s reign (1957-1987)
The lawyer Habib Bourguiba, who had already distinguished himself in the struggle for Tunisian independence, first became foreign minister and prime minister of the Constituent Assembly in 1956, and after Beys abdicated in 1957, became the first Tunisian president. The early years of his tenure were marked by a modernization of society. Bourguiba, who had studied law in France, passed a new civil status law, the Code du Statut Personnel (CSP), in 1956 just five months after independence and before the new constitution, which largely equated women and gave them, for example, the right to vote and to file for divorce on their own initiative. Bourguiba pushed the social modernization from above with all means and relied on strong symbols that are still part of the collective memory of Tunisia today. For example, at a public event, he took off a woman’s safsari, a traditional white full-body robe made of linen that can also be used to cover the head and face, and during the fasting month of Ramadan he drank a glass of orange juice on state television during the day.
The main focus of politics in his early years was the reform of the health and education systems. After the assassination of his strongest domestic political adversary Salah Ben Youssef in Frankfurt am Main in 1961, presumably by forces close to the Bourguiba government, and the ban on the Communist Party in 1963, Tunisia became a one-party state. Former companions criticized Bourguiba’s political authoritarianism early on.
In terms of foreign policy, Bourguiba’s first years in office were shaped by the president’s reform thinking. The same pragmatism that led to Tunisia’s early and relatively bloodless independence was also applied to Palestine. In a speech in Jericho in 1965 he called for negotiations with Israel and even proposed to the UN that Israel should form an alliance with neighboring Arab states. Bourguiba’s idea leads to a break with the Arab League. In Tunisia, too, the president’s move is viewed critically. A project for unification with Libya was abandoned in 1974 despite strong domestic political opposition.
After failed socialist experiments and the collectivization of agriculture in the first half of the 1960’s, Tunisia slipped into a crisis despite economic liberalization. When the government announced the increase in prices for basic foodstuffs at the turn of 1983/84, demonstrations and violent clashes broke out across the country. The so-called bread riots quickly came to an end when Bourguiba had the price increases reversed, but showed that the system had become increasingly unstable and popular support for the autocratic ruling Bourguiba, who was appointed president for life in 1975, was waning. In addition, the Islamist Ennahdha movement grew stronger, leading to several attacks on hotels in August 1987 is blamed. This diffuse climate of fear and the noticeably deteriorating health of Bourguiba favor the rise of General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The medical coup of November 7, 1987
The former secret service agent and General Ben Ali was appointed Interior Minister in 1986 and then Prime Minister in October 1987. Above all, he had devoted himself to the fight against the Islamists, against whom he took a hard hand. On the night of November 6th to 7th, 1987, he brought together a group of doctors who confirmed that the aged Bourguiba was incapacitated. This bloodless “medical coup” was initially welcomed by large sections of the population, and Ben Ali came forward with the promise of democratic reforms.
The change of power came before another coup d’état that a group around the then banned Islamist party Ennahdha had planned for November 8, 1987.