Tunisia is the country where the “Arab Spring” of revolutions began. On December 17, 2010, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, who was the only wage earner in his extended family of eight in the town of Sidi Bouzid 190 miles south of Tunis, Tunisia, had no idea that his actions that day would light a fire of revolution that would burn across the Arab world. Bouazizi sold vegetables from a cart, which a policewoman confiscated on the grounds it was unlicensed. Bouazizi tried to pay the fine, but the policewoman slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his dead father. Humiliated, Bouazizi went to provincial government headquarters to complain to local officials, but was refused admission. At 11:30 am (only an hour after the initial confrontation), Bouazizi returned to headquarters, doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire. Public outrage quickly grew over the incident, leading to protests against high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, lack of free speech and other political freedoms, and poor living conditions. The protests were the biggest in Tunisia since 1987, when President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali had replaced the aging President Habib Bourguiba. The protests soon grew in size and intensity, and led to the ouster of President Ben Ali 28 days later on January 14, 2011. The protests inspired similar actions throughout the Arab world; the Egyptian revolution began after the events in Tunisia and also led to the overthrow of Egypt's longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Protests also took place in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Mauritania and Libya.
Lay of the Land: Tunisia is the northernmost country in Africa, lying halfway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Nile River delta, with Algeria to the west, Libya to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east. With an area of 64,000 square miles, Tunisia is slightly smaller than Wisconsin, and is the smallest country in North Africa. Though small, Tunisia’s 492 mile length from north to south creates great environmental and climatic diversity, characterized by decreasing rainfall moving southward. An abrupt southward turn of the Mediterranean coast in northern Tunisia creates two separate coasts, running west to east in the north, and north to south in the east. Northern Tunisia consists of the mountainous eastern extension of Algeria’s Atlas Mountains, and fertile valleys and plains, including the Sahel, a broad coastal plain along Tunisia’s eastern Mediterranean coast, which is one of the world’s premier areas of olive growing. Central Tunisia is dominated by the Tell, a region characterized by low, rolling hills and plains, sometimes referred to as steppes. Much of the southern half of the country is semi-arid and desert, and merges into the Sahara. The capital and largest city of Tunis, which became the capital in 1159 after centuries of being a suburb to the ancient city of Carthage, is home to more than 750,000 Tunisians, though that number swells to 2.4 million, or nearly one in four Tunisians, if one counts the entire metropolitan area.
Although part of the continent of Africa, the land of Tunisia, like the rest of coastal North Africa, has long been much more a part of the Mediterranean Sea basin. The Berbers, a people who now inhabit the lands of North Africa lying between the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea, from Egypt to Morocco, were present in Tunisia by the end of the second millennium BCE. They were primarily settled farmers, though some were nomadic. Phoenician traders, whose homeland of Phoenicia was located roughly where modern-day Lebanon and coastal Israel are, started to establish trading ports along Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast in the twelfth century BC. One of these, Carthage, was founded in 814 BC on the Gulf of Tunis, very close to the modern day metropolis of Tunis. Originally a dependency of Tyre, Carthage gained independence around 650 BC and established an empire over most of the Western Mediterranean that lasted until 146 BC. Carthage, however, was in a constant state of conflict with the Roman Republic, leading to a series of wars known as the Punic Wars. The great Carthaginian general Hannibal accomplished the monumental trans-Alpine attack on Rome (including elephants) in 211 BC and inflicted huge losses on the Romans until choosing suicide over capture in 183 BC. After the third and final Punic War, Roman forces in 146 BC destroyed Carthage and occupied its former territory, including the northern half of modern Tunisia. The Romans soon rebuilt Carthage as an important center of trade and administration for the province of Africa, which consisted of Rome’s African possessions west of Egypt, including Tunisia. Roman Africa, along with Egypt, became the premier centers of grain growing in the empire. In the 5th century, as Rome went into decline, Tunisia fell to the Vandals, Visigoths, and then Byzantine Greeks in rapid succession.
The U.S. has good relations with Tunisia, which go back more than 200 years, to the arrival of the first American ambassador to Tunisia (then the Amir of Tunis?) in 1795 and the subsequent signing of the American Friendship Treaty with Tunisia in 1797. Although there are no security treaties between the U.S. and Tunisia, relations have been close since Tunisian independence in 1956. U.S.-Tunisian relations suffered briefly after the 1985 Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Tunis, after the 1988 assassination of PLO terrorist Abu Jihad in Tunis, and in 1990 during the Gulf War. Each time, however, the long history of strong bilateral ties caused relations to improve again quickly. The United States and Tunisia conduct not infrequent joint military exercises, and U.S. money for Tunisia’s military has long played an important role in cementing relations. The U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission meets annually to discuss military cooperation, Tunisia’s defense modernization program, and other security matters.
Relations remain close between the two governments, although they were certainly very strained during January 2011, as the U.S. attempted to ease Ben Ali out of power and the longtime U.S. ally expressed his displeasure at what he saw as Yankee disloyalty. Since the revolution, the new governments have been eager to maintain friendly relations with the U.S., as well as to continue to engage in joint anti-terrorism activities.
The United States enjoys a favorable trade balance with Tunisia, averaging $66.5 million more in exports than imports over the past three years, 2008-2010, though in 2008 the balance actually ran in Tunisia’s favor, by $141.6 million. In 2010, U.S. exports were dominated by soybeans, oilseeds and food oils ($154.2 million or 27%); corn, sorghum, barley and oats ($53.8 million or 9.4%); other petroleum products ($34 million or 5.9%); chemicals ($27.1 million or 4.7%); plastic materials ($25.6 million or 4.4%); industrial engines ($25 million or 4.3%); drilling and oilfield equipment ($24.4 million or 4.2%); pulpwood and woodpulp ($20.3 million or 3.5%); and medicinal equipment ($11.8 million or 2%). U.S. imports from Tunisia in 2010 were led by food oils and oilseeds ($81.8 million or 20.1%); apparel and household goods made of cotton, wool or other textiles ($71.9 million or 17.7%); crude oil ($54.3 million or 13.3%); jewelry ($37.1 million or 9.15%); fuel oil ($30.5 million or 7.5%); industrial engines, pumps, compressors & generators ($20.9 million or 5.15%); fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides ($19.2 million or 4.7%); electric apparatus and parts ($15.1 million or 3.7%); and telecommunications equipment ($10.1 million or 2.5%).
Although the Tunisian Constitution sets forth protections for civil and political rights, in fact the regime of President Ben Ali often did not respect those rights. There were significant limitations on citizens' right to change their government, so the citizens took to the streets, organized themselves, and toppled their ruler. Prior to that, severe restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, and association worsened in the period before and after the October 2009 elections. The government did not tolerate public criticism, and it used intimidation, criminal investigations, the judicial system, arbitrary arrests, residential restrictions, and travel controls to discourage criticism. Corruption among government officials was a problem. The security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees and arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals, acting with impunity under the silent approval of high-ranking officials. There were also reports of lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention, and prison conditions generally did not meet international standards, as overcrowding and poor medical care posed real threats to prisoners' health. Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the executive branch and the president strongly influenced judicial procedures, especially in cases concerning political dissidents and oppositionists. Although the constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to practice the rites of one's religion unless they disturb the public order, the government imposes some restrictions on this right, including the constitutional stipulation that the country is determined to adhere to the teachings of Islam, that Islam is the official state religion, and that the president is required to be Muslim.
Morris N. Hughes, June 6, 1956 to October 4, 1956
Tunisia’s Ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Salah Tekaya, presented his credentials to the State Department on October 1, 2010, and then to President Obama on December 7, 2010…only ten days before his countrymen exploded in a revolution that toppled the man who had appointed him ambassador, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Link to Web Site of Tunisia’s Embassy in the U.S.
The North African nation of Tunisia, where the recent wave of Arab revolutions began in December 2010, will soon have a new Ambassador from the United States. President Barack Obama on December 14, 2011, nominated career diplomat Jacob “Jake” Walles for the post, which is his first ambassadorship, although he has extensive experience in Middle East relations. He was confirmed by the Senate on March 29, 2012.
President Barack Obama nominated an experienced diplomat to be the US ambassador to Tunisia. Gordon Gray III, who was confirmed by the Senate on July 10, 2009, has almost 30 years experience in the Foreign Service, most of it in positions dealing with the Middle East. Gray succeeds career diplomat Robert F. Godec. Since the opening of the U.S. embassy in Tunis, only career diplomats have held this post. Gray’s father and grandfather were involved in the radio and TV industries in New York. At the time of his death in 1991, his father, Gordon Gray, Jr., was national sales manager in New York for the Christian Broadcasting Network. Born circa 1956 and raised in New York, Gordon Gray III earned a B.A. from Yale University in 1978. He then served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Oued Zem, Morocco, from 1978 to 1980. Returning to academia, he earned a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University in 1982.