Map of Tunisia

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Tunisia turmoil

Broken dreams

Doubts about martyr

Hunting Ben Ali's treasure

'Speakers' corner'

Home of the ancient city of Carthage, Tunisia has long been an important player in the Mediterranean, placed as it is in the centre of North Africa, close to vital shipping routes.

In their time, the Romans, Arabs, Ottoman Turks and French realised its strategic significance, making it a hub for control over the region.

French colonial rule ended in 1956, and Tunisia was led for three decades by Habib Bourguiba, who advanced secular ideas. These included emancipation for women – women's rights in Tunisia are among the most advanced in the Arab world – the abolition of polygamy and compulsory free education.

Mr Bourguiba insisted on an anti-Islamic fundamentalist line, while increasing his own powers to become a virtual dictator.

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At a glance

Politics: Tunisia has been in a state of transition since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January 2011 following widespread unrest

Economy: The diverse economy has grown steadily and the slum population has halved, but the world recession has pushed unemployment up in recent years

International: Tunisia has strong ties with the European Union; its peacekeepers have served in several conflict areas

In 1987 he was dismissed on grounds of senility and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali' became president. He continued with a hard line against Islamic extremists, but inherited an economically-stable country.

Although Tunisia under Mr Ben Ali introduced some press freedoms and freed a number of political prisoners, human rights groups said the authorities tolerated no dissent, harassing government critics and rights activists.

Mr Ben Ali faced reproach at home and abroad for his party's three “99.9%” election wins. The opposition condemned changes to the constitution which allowed him to run for re-election in 2004, and in 2009.

Tunisia is more prosperous than its neighbours and has strong trade links with Europe. Agriculture employs a large part of the workforce, and dates and olives are cultivated in the drier regions. Millions of European tourists flock to Tunisian resorts every year.

Political violence was rare until recently, but militant Islamists have become an issue of concern for the authorities. A suicide bomb attack on an historic synagogue in the resort of Djerba in 2002 killed 21 people and led to a dramatic drop in tourist numbers.

A dozen suspected Islamists were killed in shoot-outs with security forces in and around Tunis at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007. Lawyers say hundreds of people were arrested on suspicion of links with terrorist groups since 2003, when the authorities gained new powers of arrest.

Violent repression of protests over unemployment and lack of political freedom in the winter of 2010-2011 left dozens of people dead. But popular street protests continued and President Ben Ali went into exile in January 2011.


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