In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tunisia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Letters and Narrative Accounts
  • Journals
  • Historiographical Controversies
  • Colonial Tunisia (1881–1956)
  • Ethnic Groups (Jews, Europeans, Africans)
  • The People’s Revolution (2011)

African Studies Tunisia
Silvia Marsans-Sakly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0078


The geographic entity that is modern Tunisia was the onetime Roman province of Ifriqiya, breadbasket of the empire, whose name was later given to the entire continent of Africa. Carthage was its most famous city. Steeped in mythological traditions, from the travails of Aeneas to the land of the Lotus Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, Tunisia has traditionally stood at the crossroads between East and West, the Mediterranean and Arab Islamic world. This tie to the classical past served as one ideological justification for French colonial intervention, an irredentist mission to rescue the heritage of classical civilization from the Arab tribal hordes who had supposedly devastated the country over the intervening centuries. Due to the costly experience of directly incorporating neighboring Algeria’s settler colony into the French mainland, in 1881 modern Tunisia became a protectorate that kept the indigenous dynasty of rulers in place as figureheads until independence in 1956. Real power, however, lay in the hands of the French resident general. Tunisia’s long tutelage has caused it to be regarded by Middle Easterners as a country of pseudo-Arabs and much too French, with little connection to the Ottoman and Islamic past, suspended between and Mediterraneanism and Orientalism. Colonial history was a product of its sources, mostly travelers’ accounts and official consular archives. Travelers and officials treated Tunisia’s indigenous populations as culturally backward, disorderly, and fanatical and the administration as hopelessly corrupt. Fanaticism and xenophobia were attributed to Islam, acting as a force of obscurantism. Against this backdrop, progress-driven narratives of modernity have animated both colonial and nationalist historiographies. The architect and founding father of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, took the reins of power in 1956, ruling continuously until his ouster in 1987 by his prime minister, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, in a bloodless medical coup that put the aging leader under house arrest until his death in 2000. Both leaders showed early promise to usher in democratic reforms that never materialized. Bourguiba set Tunisia’s course as a secular Western-style republic with one of the most liberal legal codes regulating the status of women in the Muslim world. But in 1975 he declared himself president for life. Likewise, Ben Ali liberalized the markets, creating the “Tunisian economic miracle,” and talked the rhetoric of human rights, all while he ran a police state and used state coffers as his and his family’s personal bank account. The situation exploded in December 2011, when a fruit seller set himself on fire after the confiscation of his cart deprived him of his livelihood. The act touched off the “Jasmine Revolution,” whose popular protests forced Ben Ali to flee the country. This bibliography analyzes the sources and historical trajectory of Tunisia from the 18th century to the 2011 revolution.

General Overviews

For a basic if somewhat politically focused narrative account of North African history, ʾAbun-Nasr 1987 is indispensable reading, as it was the first survey of the region in English. Although less well-known, Morsy 1984, also available in English, is a highly readable synthesis documenting local events not normally mentioned elsewhere. Boldly conceived, it includes both Egypt and Sudan in a history of North Africa to underscore the interconnectedness of the events and geographies but also to suggest that the Maghreb is as much a political as a geographic construct. (Most political constructions of the Maghreb include Mauritania, but history books have been slow to catch up with political developments.) Magali Morsy is thus able to establish connections between Egypt and North African Ottoman provinces, specifically Tunisia. Connections include the pattern of 19th-century reform under the Ottoman Tanzimat (meaning reorganization), economic links in the trans-Saharan caravan and slave trades, and the movement of Sufi orders along with the circulation of ideas of the early Islamic modernists. A detailed textbook account much more focused on the particulars of colonial history is Bensamoun and Chalak 2007. Available only in French, the text is indispensable for beginning students interested in colonialism or new to North African history and historiography. It includes biographical information in footnotes and definitions of unfamiliar or technical terminology. Paginated cross-referencing of important terms, agents, movements, and ideas make this text user-friendly. Rejecting the paradigms of Eurocentric modernization theory, Hermassi 1975 uses the state as an analytic tool to compare the histories of the region, critiquing and superseding anthropological models of Maghrebi society. Like Hermassi 1975, Anderson 1986 presents a comparative and longitudinal analysis of the state-led reform projects that produced such different historical trajectories in Tunisia and Libya, both of which had once been Ottoman provinces. For an in-depth and comparative analysis of nationalist movements in French North Africa and the intransigent response of the colonial administrations attempting to hold on to power against an increasingly restive population clamoring for independence, Julien 2002 is invaluable. Concentrating exclusively on Tunisia, Perkins 2004 and Alexander 2010 provide highly readable narratives. Alexander focuses on more contemporary history and internal regime politics; Perkins gives the most comprehensive narrative account of the history of modern Tunisia from the liberal experiment of the 1850s beginning with the reforms of Ahmed Bey ben Mohamed Chérif to the Zine al Abidine Ben Ali era. Perkins 2004 is particularly detailed on the liberation, early nationalist struggles, and the Bourguiba era. That overview traces common development patterns while pointing out useful contrasts in precolonial, colonial, national liberation, and consolidation periods.

  • ʾAbun-Nasr, Jamil M. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511608100

    Based on the author’s classic 1971 book A History of the Maghrib (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), this was the first historical survey of the region available in English. This edition is a basic narrative starting point, adding information on the 7th-century Arab invasions and 11th-century Hilalian invasions. It also expands the sections on colonial and nationalist history, contextualizing and comparing the history of North Africa, defined as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.

  • Alexander, Christopher. Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb. Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2010.

    Survey of state reform efforts with particular attention to the inner-party politics and squabbles of the Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras.

  • Anderson, Lisa. The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830–1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

    Comparative account of the precolonial and nationalist eras for the 19th-century Ottoman regencies that eventually became Tunisia and Libya. The comparative framework is illuminating, but it is state-centered, and the analysis is driven by modernization paradigms. The author’s thesis, that nationalism is the result of top-down projects of state intervention, leaves little room for any indigenous push from below or for the agency of nonelites.

  • Bensamoun, Yvette Katan, and Rama Chalak. Le Maghreb: De l’Empire Ottoman a la fin de la colonisation française. Paris: Editions Belin, 2007.

    Useful for both students and seasoned scholars. Excellent source for what became the French Maghreb: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Includes cross-references of sociological and or cultural terms and internal cross-references of recurring themes.

  • Hermassi, Elbaki. Leadership and National Development in North Africa: A Comparative Study. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

    Landmark comparative study of nationalism and national culture in North Africa using the state as the unit of analysis, from the precolonial period to the consolidation of regional nation-states. Includes Morocco and Libya. Critiques many of the anthropological concepts explaining the social and political life of tribal populations.

  • Julien, Charles-André. L’Afrique du Nord en marche: Nationalismes musulmans et souveraineté française. Paris: Omnibus, 2002.

    Originally published in 1952 and prescient in its analysis of rising independence movements across North Africa, this authoritative text demonstrates how nationalist movements influenced one another and how the French colonial government perceived its mission and the challenge of granting self-governance. Useful for understanding interconnections between movements.

  • Morsy, Magali. North Africa, 1800–1900: A Survey from the Nile Valley to the Atlantic. London: Longman, 1984.

    This event-driven narrative includes local struggles not normally discussed in other histories. Useful introduction to principal players and includes both Egypt and Sudan. Accepts the segmentary theory of tribal society and falls back on its major tenets to explain rebel movements.

  • Perkins, Kenneth J. A History of Modern Tunisia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Survey history of modern Tunisia that is particularly comprehensive on the nationalist period but thin on the Ben Ali era. Focuses on Tunisia, examining the recurring process of reform as well as persistent authoritarianism. Excellent coverage of the formation of the Tunisian General Labour Union and the struggle between the two Dustur (Arabic for constitution) parties and Habib Bourguiba’s struggle with his early political rival Zaida Ben Yusuf.

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