Tunisia celebrates its national day on 20 March – the day in 1956 when it gained independence from France.
In ancient times it was the heart of the Carthaginian civilisation, which for a time – perhaps 300 years from 500 BCE to 200 BCE – was the most powerful in the western Mediterranean. However, the Romans conquered it in 149 BCE and kept control until the fifth century CE. Round about the year 700 it came under Arab Muslim rule, ultimately becoming part of the Ottoman Empire, although under its Beys (governors) it was virtually independent.
The government declared itself bankrupt in 1869 and an international financial commission took over the running of the Tunisian economy. In 1883 the French invaded from Algeria and established a protectorate, encouraging European settlement for several decades afterwards; by 1945 there were 144,000 French colonists.
In 1934 a nationalist party, Neo Destour, was founded, but immediately lost its leader Habib Bourguiba to imprisonment in France. During the Second World War occupation of France by the Nazis Bourguiba was transferred to Rome, where the Axis powers tried to induce him to set Neo Destour against the Allies. He was released in 1943 and returned to Tunisia, where he continued to advocate independence from France, in a political and at times violent campaign which ultimately succeeded in 1956. Bourguiba became President in 1957 and remained in power until impeached by his own Prime Minister, Ben Ali, in 1987 on health grounds. Ben Ali was himself overthrown by a popular revolt (the “Jasmine Revolution”) in January 2011.