Last Updated: Wednesday, 01 October 2014, 14:56 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Tunisia : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Tunisia : Overview, 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce4423.html [accessed 2 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Environment

The Republic of Tunisia borders Algeria and Libya, and has a 1,300 kilometre Mediterranean coastline.


Peoples

Main languages: Arabic, French, Shilha (a Berber dialect)

Main religions: Sunni Islam

Main minority groups: Berbers, Jews 1,500, Baha'i 200

[Note: the figures for Jews and Baha'i come from the US State Department's 2006 report on international religious freedom. Percentages are calculated using the 2006 CIA World Factbook estimate of 10.2 million. No reliable figures for Berbers could be sourced, although some media/online sources state between 1 and 2 per cent of the population]

The Berber-speaking minority in Tunisia is much smaller, in both absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population, than their counterparts in Morocco or Algeria. They live mainly in isolated pockets in southern Tunisia. The government claims that they have been integrated into Arab Muslim culture and do not constitute an autonomous localized minority of specific character. Because of this, it is difficult to find reliable statistics or evaluate the Berber situation, but they do not appear to have faced the same problems or developed the same opposition to government as in the other countries of North Africa.

There are thought to be only about 1,500 Jews remaining in Tunisia. Around 500 of these live in the capital and are predominantly descended from Spanish and Italian immigrants, while the remainder of the population is concentrated on the island of Djerba – a community that can trace its roots back for 2,500 years. There were cases of attacks on Jews and Jewish property in the 1980s but the government made efforts to reassure the Jewish community. Today the government provides security at synagogues.

As in many other Islamic countries, the government regards Tunisia's tiny Baha'i community of 200 as heretical, and forbids their worshipping in public, although it does tolerate private gatherings.


History

Berbers are indigenous to the area of today's Tunisia. Phoenicians settled on the Mediterranean coast in the 10th century BC, later founding the city and empire of Carthage before the area fell to Roman rule. Arabs conquered the region in the seventh century, introducing Islam. Arab rule sparked Berber rebellions and periods of Berber rule. The fifteenth century saw significant migration of Jews to Tunisia. The Tunisian Jewish community was one of the oldest and most important in North Africa. In Muslim countries around the tenth century, they were regarded as 'People of the Book' and thus deserving protection. In general, Jews were not forced to convert, although they suffered a host of restrictions. How seriously these rules were applied depended on local conditions.

Confronted by such adversity, Jewish communities were held together by the solidarity of the local group which revolved around a synagogue and by treatment received from the higher authorities. Jews continued to be present in the cities as merchants and artisans.

Tunisia became part of the Ottoman Empire in the late sixteenth century, and in 1881, France surmounted Italian interest and established a protectorate. As in other French colonies, Jews fared well, but during the brief German occupation of Tunisia in World War II, many were imprisoned in forced labour camps.

Tunisia gained independence in 1956, two years after violent anti-French uprisings, and the monarchy was abolished the following year.

Tunisia's Jewish population dwindled from 105,000 in 1948 to 20,000 after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.


Governance

Since 1987 Tunisia has been ruled by an authoritarian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who came to power in a bloodless coup after having Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, declared mentally unfit to hold office. Ben Ali followed his predecessor's focus on economic modernization without regard to political or human rights, with the exception of advances in women's rights. He won Potemkin elections staged in 1989, 1994, 1999, and 2004 with over 90 per cent of the vote.

Tunisia has always enjoyed relative economic strength and stability. The broadly secularist, pro-Western, yet authoritarian government considered the pursuit of economic growth paramount, and it feared that tourism and its strategy of investment-led growth could collapse if the country's Islamic opposition were allowed to become militant. Islamist critics said the security clampdown, including widespread detentions, went well beyond what is needed to counter the Islamist threat. Human Rights Watch has documented the government's practice of detaining Islamists for extended periods in solitary confinement.

The Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) government from 1994 took a tough line against Hizb Ennadha, the country's main Islamist movement, which was driven underground. President Ben Ali has used the Islamist threat to stifle other opposition. With a weak and divided legal opposition, and the gap between rich and poor smaller than in any other Arab African country, Tunisia long remained largely depoliticized.


Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The government's suppression of dissent may serve to radicalize regime opponents. In January 2007, clashes between Islamic militants and security forces in Tunis killed twelve. The small Berber population is diffuse, scattered in small communities across the south, and no significant minority-based opposition has emerged.

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