Here's a piece I wrote about Tunisia for the print edition of City Journal, which is now available to non-subscribers online.
The Arab Spring began in Sidi Bouzid, a small Tunisian town, at the end of 2010. In a desperate protest against the corrupt and oppressive government that had made it impossible for him to earn a living, food-cart vendor Mohamed Bouazizi stood before City Hall, doused himself with gasoline, and lit a match. His suicide seeded a revolutionary storm that swept the countryside and eventually arrived at the capital, Tunis, where it toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Just weeks later, Hosni Mubarak was thrown from his palace in Egypt. Muammar el-Qaddafi was lynched later that year in Libya. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad may be the next to fall.
For the most part, the Arab Spring isn’t going well. In the post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, Egyptians voted for radical Islamists by a two-to-one margin. The Libyan state, totalitarian under Qaddafi, is now so weak that it barely exists, as the September terrorist attack that killed the American ambassador demonstrated. In Syria, the revolt against the tyrannical house of Assad may be only the opening chapter in a long civil war. But things look different in Tunisia. True, a mob of radical Salafists rioted at the U.S. embassy in the capital, but the police did their job and protected our diplomatic staff and property. President Moncef Marzouki even dispatched hundreds of his own presidential guards to the scene. The Islamist party Ennahda won more votes in the election last year than any rival, but it still won fewer than half and was forced into a coalition government with secular liberal parties. In Tunisia, no one person or party has its hands on all the levers of power. Citizens are free, and so is the press.
Why is the Arab Spring looking sunnier in the country in which it began? The answer has much to do with Tunisia’s remarkable 3,000-year history.
The northernmost point on the African continent is just outside the Tunisian city of Bizerte. The Mediterranean bottlenecks there, with the Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily about 100 miles to the north and east of Tunisia, respectively. The tiny Italian island of Pantelleria is even nearer: 37 miles away. Palermo, Sicily’s largest city, is closer to Tunis than it is to Rome.
It should come as no surprise, then, that this area became the overseas core of the Roman Empire. But an advanced civilization existed there long before Rome arrived. Legend has it that in roughly 900 BC, a princess named Elissa was exiled from the Phoenician city of Tyre, in what today is southern Lebanon. (Most Westerners are more familiar with her Greek name, thanks to Virgil, who immortalized her as Dido in The Aeneid.) She founded a new city on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and became its queen.
That city was Carthage, and it became a megacity by antiquity’s standards, with 300,000 residents. Indeed, the city was so dense that the Carthaginians built six-story apartment buildings to house everyone, a feat that had never before been accomplished. The buildings even had indoor plumbing. “To some extent, you could compare it to Manhattan,” Stefan Chrissanthos, author of Warfare in the Ancient World,told the History Channel. “It was a huge population living in a relatively small area.” The residents built baths, a complex sewer system, and enormous cisterns that survive to this day. The most backward and impoverished parts of the Arab world still don’t have all the luxuries that the Carthaginians had.
Carthage was a sea power, with one of the most formidable navies in the ancient world. At the height of its glory, it controlled most of the southern Mediterranean, from Morocco to Libya. For hundreds of years, it rivaled Rome in power and wealth. No other force at the time could challenge and threaten Rome as it did. When the two finally clashed, Carthage produced one of the greatest generals in history, Hannibal, whose army swung through Spain and France and invaded Italy from the north on the backs of elephants. Europe was very nearly conquered from Africa. And while Hannibal failed, he put fear into the hearts of Rome’s citizens. The Roman statesman Cato the Elder is famously supposed to have uttered the words Carthago delenda est—“Carthage must be destroyed”—after every one of his speeches.
At the end of the Third Punic War (Punic is the Latin word for “Phoenician”), Rome did destroy Carthage—utterly. Barely one stone remained atop another, and the Carthaginians were killed or enslaved. Little remains, therefore, of Hannibal’s Carthage today. But in the northern, more Westernized parts of modern-day Tunisia, people still admire and identify with Hannibal. Stores and hotels are named after him; the last light-rail stop before the lovely seaside suburb of Sidi Bou Said is called Carthage-Hannibal; the international airport is named Tunis-Carthage. Fragments of Phoenician culture may persist as well. During the spring and summer, Tunisian men walking the streets place jasmine flowers behind their ears, a fashion that they insist was popular in Hannibal’s time.
The three wars with Carthage convinced the Romans that they needed a serious empire, lest they be conquered by somebody else. “It was in Tunisia where Rome began to build its empire in earnest,” Robert Kaplan writes in his book Mediterranean Winter. “Tunisia became to Rome what India would be to Great Britain, its ‘jewel in the imperial crown.’ ” Julius Caesar rebuilt the city in the Roman style, settled it with Roman citizens, and made the new Carthage the principal European city in Africa. (The name “Africa” was originally what the Romans called Tunisia, and it eventually came to refer to the entire continent.)
The Romans later conquered the whole of North Africa, but they developed none of it as much as the area that now surrounds Tunis. You can see that influence today if you visit: Roman ruins are scattered everywhere. The largest coliseum outside Italy still stands in El Djem, just a few hours south of Tunis by car. Here again, modern-day Tunisians feel personally connected to their history. Ahmed Medien, a local journalist with whom I toured the ruins in Tunis, doesn’t think of them as something left behind by somebody else, the way many Americans might view Native American sites in Arizona and Colorado. He sees a straight historical line between himself and ancient Carthage and describes both the Roman and the (few) Phoenician ruins as parts of his own cultural heritage.
Tunisia belonged to Western civilization for nearly 1,000 years, more than four times longer than the United States has so far existed. And the Romans who brought Carthage into the West left an even more lasting imprint than buildings: a legacy of legitimate government and advanced urban development, two things that remain extremely weak in some modern-day Arab countries. It was as part of the Roman Empire, too, that Carthage made its great contributions to early Christianity. The biblical canon was confirmed there, the theologians Tertullian and Cyprian hailed from the area, and so did Saint Augustine—whose hometown, Hippo, is in present-day Algeria but was part of greater Carthage at the time.
Carthage was later ruled by the Vandals from Germany and then by the Byzantine Empire. Not until the seventh century did Arab armies finally take it. And when they did, they couldn’t impose the culture of the Arabian Peninsula wholesale on the inhabitants. Instead, the conquerors adjusted themselves to the advanced civilization that was already there. Conquering Arabs did this everywhere, but usually to a smaller degree: in few places was the indigenous culture as resilient as in Tunisia. And in few places—the most notable exception being Andalusia in Spain—was the preexisting culture Western.
Tunisia didn’t rejoin the West until 1881, when France took it from the Turkish Ottomans. The French architecture of the greater Tunis area is startling when you see it for the first time. It’s much more extensive than in Beirut, supposedly the Paris of the Middle East. Parts of northern Tunisia almost look and feel as though they’re in Europe. But the country’s European flavor results from far more than a period of French dominion. For one thing, despite its 1,000 years under Muslim rule, Tunisia has retained certain Western characteristics. It doesn’t have tribes, as most Arab countries do. Its culture is cosmopolitan and tolerant, its enthusiasm for religion relatively mild.
Another reason for Tunisia’s modern feel is that the instant it achieved independence from France in 1956, it set itself on a course different from that of other Arab states. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, was a dictator in the mold of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Like Atatürk, Bourguiba wanted his country to orient itself toward Europe. He decreed that education would be in French, though Arabic was (and remains) the country’s day-to-day language. He admitted, at least privately, that his brief experiment with socialist economics had failed, and he shifted to a market economy. As a result, 60 percent of citizens are middle-class today, more than in any other Arab state without oil.
Bourguiba also implemented a code granting equal rights to women and men—a first for the Arab world. He referred to the veil as “that odious rag” and banished it from schools and government offices. Even on the street, where women are free to wear what they want, many fewer opt for headscarves and veils than in most Arab countries. “No other Arab country has tried the same policy we tried—to free ourselves from the religious legacy and make religion merely a cultural reference rather than a way of ruling the country,” says Tunisian diplomat Ahmed Ounais, who was briefly the foreign minister last year.