Customised search for historical information

20 March 2011

On this day in history: Tunisian independence, 1956

In 1861, Tunisia became the first country in the Arab world to enact a constitution. Nevertheless, eight years later the former Ottoman possession declared itself bankrupt, partly as a result of political instability. Consequently, the country’s economy became the responsibility of a group of British, French and Italian financial commissioners.

The French and British thwarted Italian colonial ambitions in Tunisia before reaching an accord by which Britain would receive Cyprus in return for recognising that Tunisia was part of the French sphere of influence. The French then used a Tunisian incursion into her Algerian colony as a pretext to invade the country and bring an end to Italian influence over the Tunisian government.

The French invasion force of about 36,000 troops quickly reached the capital, Tunis, and forced the Bey of Tunis, Muhammed as-Sadiq, to capitulate. He signed the Treaty of Bardo on 12th May 1881, which required French troops to withdraw from the country in return for French responsibility for the defence of Tunisia as well as control of the county’s foreign policy. Thus Tunisia effectively became a French protectorate.

A nationalist movement grew over the next thirty years culminating in a coalition of nationalist groups and the formation of a pro-Ottoman party, al-Ittihad al-Islami (“The Evolutionist”) in 1911. The end of that year saw the beginning of widespread civil disturbances, to which the French authorities responded with repressive measures against the nationalists including closure of newspapers and forced exile of their leaders. Nationalist organisations emerged between the two world wars, but each suffered from the repressive policies of the colonial administration.

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, the French managed to maintain control of her North African colonies in the face of renewed nationalist struggles. An armed insurgency began during the mid-1950s centered on mountainous areas. The leaders of the Tunisian independence movement coordinated their efforts with those in Algeria and Morocco becoming the first of the three to achieve independence from France.

On 20th March 1956, Tunisia achieved its full sovereignty after two years of negotiations between the French and the Neo-Destour (“New Constitution”) party, which was backed by the trade unions. Tunisia became a constitutional monarchy with the Bey of Tunis, Muhammad VIII al-Amin Bey, as king. The next year the Prime Minister, Habib Bourguiba, abolished the monarchy and declared the Republic of Tunisia.

Related posts
First President of Senegal elected: 5th September 1960
Tanganyika and Zanzibar unite: 26th April 1964
Swaziland became independent: 6th September 1968