Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969



Tunisia was the first Arab country to be made a colony during the period of imperialism. It was seized by France in 1881, i.e. a year before the British conquest of Egypt. The French bourgeoisie, however, had little by little been preparing for the takeover throughout several decades of fierce struggle against its rivals in colonial plunder. For a long time Britain had been its chief rival. In the seventies of the 19th century, however, a new actor appeared on the Tunisian scene-Italy.

No sooner had Italy emerged as a national state than she began to grow into an imperialist power with an enormous colonial appetite. According to Bismarck, Italy had the appetite of a jackal, only with rotten teeth. Italy was a small, weak beast of prey, ousted at every step by stronger beasts. In Tunisia, however, she achieved a certain degree of success by availing herself of Britain’s support. The Italians managed to secure a lead-mining concession in Jebel-Recas, to forestall France in obtaining a telegraph concession, and to buy the concession for the Tunis-Goletta railway from Britain. The Italian colonisation of Tunisia and the founding of agricultural settlements there also began in the seventies.

Taking advantage of France’s defeat in the war against Prussia, in 1871, Italy attempted to impose an agreement on Tunisia, which envisaged special privileges for the Italian residents. The Bey decided to resist. The Italians then began to prepare a naval expedition against Tunisia and only a joint British, French and Turkish demarche forced them temporarily to relinquish their plans.


France opposed Italy’s claims and kept Tunisia for herself. In fierce competition with rival firms, French investors seized lands and concessions. They obtained concessions for the construction of a railway from Tunis to the Algerian border, for lead extraction, for the construction of a port in Tunis, and so on. The French SocietÚ Marseilles bought the huge estate of Enfida, covering about 90,000 hectares, i.e., nearly 350 square miles, which was intended to be a kind of French strong point inside Tunisia.

French capitalists became more and more persistent in demanding Tunisia’s complete conversion from a semi-colony into a French colony. The practical aspect of Tunisia’s annexation was raised at the Berlin Congress in 1878. Actually, what took place at the congress was that the Ottoman Empire was divided between the Powers, and France claimed her share.

France agreed to recognise the British and Austrian con-quests (Cyprus and Bosnia, Herzegovina), and also Russia’s expansion in the Balkans, under the condition that she be given the appropriate compensation, which she was. The compensation was not reflected in the Treaty of Berlin, but France received the Powers’ unofficial permission to seize Tunisia. Addressing Waddington, the French representative, Bismarck declared that the fruit was ripe and all they had to do was pluck it. Germany was especially insistent in encouraging French expansion in Tunisia, since Bismarck felt this would bring a double advantage to Germany. In the first place, it would distract France from plans of revanche in Europe. Once she got tied up in African affairs, France would be forced to abandon her preparations for a European war. In the second place, the French clashed with Britain and Italy over the African question. This played into Bismarck’s hands, for while France remained hostile towards Britain she could not fight in Europe, and an offended Italy would be compelled to seek support in Germany and Austria-Hungary.

In 1878, however, Britain did not bother to object to French expansion in Tunisia. Britain, Salisbury declared, had no special interests in Tunisia which could make her regard the legitimate and increasing French influence with apprehension or mistrust. At the time, Britain was preparing to take over Egypt and had no objections to giving up Tunisia to pay for this acquisition and for Cyprus.

Turkey and Italy were France’s sole enemies in Tunisia, but these France could afford to ignore.


The actual seizure of Tunisia was carried out three years later, in 1881. As usual, a border incident was provoked and the French advanced into Tunisia under the pretext of maintaining order. A 30,000-strong French army crossed the Algeria-Tunisian border on April 12, 1881. A few days later, 8,000 troops disembarked at Bizerta and advanced rapidly on the capital. On May 12, the French army surrounded Kasr-Said, the Bey’s palace in Bardo (a suburb in Tunis) and forced the Bey to sign a treaty which became known as the Treaty of Kasr-Said (the name of the palace) or the Treaty of Bardo (the name of the place where it was signed).

The word “protectorate” was not used in the Bardo Treaty but, in effect, this was an agreement on Tunisia’s colonial enslavement. According to this treaty, the Bey assented to Tunisia’s occupation by French troops under the pretext of “restoring order and security on the border and coast.” France took upon herself the conduct of Tunisia’s foreign relations and guaranteed to carry out the agreements concluded between the Tunisian Government and the European Powers. France also obtained the right of regulating Tunisia’s financial organisation in such a way as to ensure the payment of the public debt and guarantee the rights of Tunisia’s creditors. To supervise the implementation of the treaty, France appointed a minister-resident who became the sole negotiator between the French Government and the Tunisian authorities. Finally, France pledged her aid to the Tunisian Bey should he, personally, or his dynasty be threatened.

All the Powers, except Turkey and Italy, recognised the French seizure of Tunisia. The Italian and Turkish governments protested, but in vain. The Turks declared that the Tunisian Bey was a Turkish functionary and, as such, was not competent to conclude international agreements. The Turkish Sultan continued to regard himself as the Tunisian sovereign right up to World War I and only on the basis of international legal agreements concluded after the war did he give up his rights to Tunisia.

The Tunisian people were the only ones who offered any real resistance to the French. Soon after the conclusion ofthe Bardo Treaty, a fresh uprising flared up in Tunisia and for a long time the French had to fight for every inch of land. The insurgents lacked clear-cut political organisation. They were led by representatives of a religious brother-hood whose actions were guided by the medieval slogans of the crusades. The struggle lasted for several months and on July 15, 1881, after a ten-day bombardment, the French captured Sfax. In October, they occupied Kairouan and on November 19, Gafsa. It was not until November 30, 1881, that the French, having occupied Gabes, finally managed to suppress the uprising and take over the entire country.

Having conquered Tunisia, the French set about creating a colonial state and legal superstructure to ensure the domination of French monopoly capital there. On June 9, 1881, in elaboration of the Bardo Treaty, the Bey had signed a decree making the French representative the sole official intermediary in Tunisia’s mutual relations with other Powers. The Bey had thus formally declined all independence in foreign affairs. On June 8, 1883, a Franco-Tunisian Convention was signed in La Marsa, depriving him of independence in domestic affairs as well. It was in this convention that the word “protectorate” first appeared in print. The La Marsa Convention confirmed the Treaty of 1881 and compelled the Bey to put into effect any administrative, legal and financial reforms which the French Government might deem useful. The convention fixed the sum of the basic debt (125,000,000 francs) and the floating debt (17,000,000 francs). France herself undertook to satisfy the creditors’ claims. On October 2, 1884, the International Finance Commission was dissolved and all Tunisia’s financial affairs passed into the French resident-general’s control. According to a decree issued by the President of France on November 10, 1884, the resident-general was empowered to ratify and implement “all the decrees issued by His Highness the Bey.” On June 23, 1885, the resident-general was invested with “the full authority of the Republic” within Tunisia’s boundaries. All the French ground and naval forces in Tunisia were placed under his control as well as all the administrative bodies supervising the affairs both of the European and local Tunisian population.

In the provinces, the resident-general exercised his authority through the agency of the French civil controllers, which was set up on October 4, 1884. The civil controllers were subordinate to the resident-general and could be appointed and dismissed only with his approval. The entire country, with the exception of the southern territories, which had been placed under the immediate control of the French military, was divided into thirteen districts of civil control. Each district was comprised of one or several kaidats (administrative and territorial divisions) headed by kaids, local Tunisian officials, who were appointed by the Bey on the orders of the French authorities. Formally, the kaids were responsible to the Bey government. Actually, they were wholly dependent on the French civil controllers, who, according to the circular of July 22, 1887, had the right to “supervise the native chiefs’ administrative activities and to give them orders either orally or through correspondence.”

In this way, by a series of decrees, a colonial state and legal superstructure which ensured the French monopolies’ dictatorship and served their interests was set up in the first years of the protectorate. In effect, the French resident-general wielded absolute power. Although the Tunisian feudal state had not been destroyed (herein lies the difference between a protectorate and an ordinary colony), it was turned into an auxiliary apparatus of foreign power. At the head stood the French resident-general and under him, powerful administrative bosses, all of them French, who supervised each separate branch of state administration. The Bey remained on the throne, but he no longer exercised any power, having no right to issue decrees or orders without the French resident-general’s approval. True, he retained two ministers (the First Minister and the Minister of the Pen) and several departments, but these were controlled by French advisers. All the state revenues were handled by the French resident-general. As a reward for having betrayed Tunisia’s national interests, the Bey received 1,250,000 francs annually for the upkeep of his family, court and government.


France had taken over Tunisia in the teeth of vehement but futile protests from Italy. But Italy had no intention of renouncing her claims. In spite of everything, the Italian Government continued to send its agents to Tunisia and to encourage Italian colonisation. Italian farmers and merchants settled in Tunisia and Italian firms and land societies appeared. Driven by need, many Italians emigrated to Tunisia in search of work and formed a rapidly growing colony there.

On the foreign scene, Italy concluded a whole series of treaties and agreements against France and French colonial expansion in North Africa. In reply to the establishment of a French protectorate over Tunisia, on May 20, 1882, Italy signed the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. In 1887 and 1891, she concluded the Madrid agreements with Spain against French claims in Maghreb, to which Austria-Hungary also adhered.

At the end of the 19th century, however, Italy began to reconsider her foreign policy and agreed to a compromise with France on colonial questions. In 1896, she recognised the French protectorate over Tunisia, having received a number of advantages for herself. According to the agreement of 1896, France recognised the Italian residents’ special position in Tunisia. The Italians received the right to settle in Tunisia, to buy real estate and to build their own schools and hospitals.

The Italians’ numerical superiority and their fairly important positions in Tunisia was a constant source of anxiety to the French colonialists, who did all they could to limit Italian immigration and assimilate the Italian immigrants. Nevertheless, up till 1931, the Italian population invariably outnumbered the French in Tunisia, a fact which was widely used by Italian nationalistic propaganda and diplomacy.


The French protectorate cleared the way for unrestricted exploitation of the Tunisian people and the plunder of their national resources by the French monopolies. People came to Tunisia in search of easy profit, seizing lands, concessions and contracts.

Land plunder in Tunisia was as widespread as in Algeria, but developed faster. The colonial authorities did all they could to encourage and even organise French colonisation. In the very first years of the protectorate, a number of decrees were issued ensuring the mass expropriation of the Arab lands. Already by July 1, 1885, a land law was promulgated, introducing land immatriculation according to the Torrens system, which entailed the public examination of land tenure rights by a special Land Tribunal. It also entailed the registration of the land with the annulment of the rights which had been declared null and void. Immatriculation offered scope for legalised land seizure and for the “protection” of the French colonists’ rights against the former owners’ claims. The French land legislation was applied to the immatriculated lands and the banks readily handed out loans on the security of the immatriculated lands.

The French bought most of the land privately without any direct help from the authorities (“unofficial colonisation”). However, the communal lands belonging to the tribes and especially the waqfs (inalienable property dedicated to pious aims) could not pass to new owners. To put an end to this and to make it easier for the French to buy any land they wanted, new laws passed in the protectorate (the decrees of 1885, 1898 and 1905) permitted long term leases and the exchange and purchase of the waqf land. In this way, although waqf land tenure was not abolished, the French colonists were given ample opportunity to buy this land.

In 1892, the protectorate government began the process of official colonisation, as already practised in Algeria. Official colonisation may be described as the twofold re-distribution of land tenure. At first the colonial authorities confiscated the land from the Arab proprietors, concentrated it in their own hands, and then sold it for next to nothing to the French colonists. A special colonisation fund was set up in 1897 for the purchase of land for colonisation purposes. In 1898, the public waqf administration was obliged to allot up to 2,000 hectares annually to the state “in fairly large plots suitable for cultivation.” The decrees of 1890, 1896 and 1903 on the woodland and the “dead lands” (mawat) abolished collective tribal landownership without even acknowledging the Tunisian tribes’ rights of ownership over their communal land. The Tunisian nomads and semi-nomads became mere users of land they had formerly owned. At the same time, part of the communal land was confiscated from the tribes under the pretext of its being “excess land,” and handed over to the colonisation fund.

A small group of French businessmen and speculators grew fabulously rich on the mass expropriation and sale of land “in the Algerian manner,” which ruined the Tunisian peasantry and deprived it of its property. French land-ownership in Tunisia increased from 107,000 hectares in 1881 to 443,000 hectares in 1892 and 882,000 hectares in 1912. Moreover, by 1912, 135,000 hectares were owned by the Italians and other Europeans. Unlike Algeria, in Tunisia there were no small colonists except for the Italians, who, as a rule, owned small farms. French colonisation was openly speculative in character. “Many hectares, but few people,” as Jean Jaures described it. The French colonists and joint-stock companies bought huge estates and then resold them to other colonists or even to Tunisians. Large tracts of land accrued to capitalist companies such as the Societe Franco-Africaine, Compagnie de Phosphate et de Chemin de Fer de Gafsa, SocietÚ de Ferme Franšaise and Omniom Immobiliere Tunisienne. Among the “colonists” there were Parisian bankers, capitalists and concessionaires who had never seen Tunisia and who managed their estates through their agents or through dummies. Huge latifundiums were purchased by generals who had participated in Tunisia’s conquest and by diplomats who had helped establish a protectorate over Tunisia. It was enough for a bourgeois newspaper to expose these laws and the editor would be given an estate in Tunisia to keep him quiet. It was enough for the deputies and senators to demand that the abuses practised in Tunisia be investigated and the members of the investigating Parliamentary Commission were also provided with estates and, naturally, the Commission proved these claims to be groundless. This was how many bourgeois statesmen, deputies, senators and newspaper editors acquired large estates in Tunisia.

Under this type of colonisation most of the colonised land was leased to the big Tunisian leaseholders, who administered their estates by traditional feudal methods. On the colonists’ land as well as on the Tunisian feudalists’ estates such forms of exploitation as the khammasat, metayage, and mugaras, were widespread. Capitalist production relations developed extremely slowly. True, individual colonists attempted to organise farms with the use of hired labour for growing grain and other agricultural produce. Prior to World War 1, these farms, except in the sphere of viniculture and wine-making, were not extensively developed. Hired immigrant workers (mainly from Italy) were employed in wine-making. In 1913, vineyards covered an area of 17,942 hectares and approximately 300,000 gallons of wine were produced.

Having seized Tunisia, the French monopolies turned it into a market for French industry and a raw material base. The influx of French goods dealt a severe blow to Tunisian craft production. In the first twenty-five years of the protectorate’s existence, the number of artisans in Tunis dropped from between six and seven thousand to a mere two thousand. The only branch of the Tunisian economy that developed rapidly under the French protectorate was mining. Lead ore began to be exported in the very first years of occupation. In 1899, the Compagnie de Phosphate et de Chemin de Fer de Gafsa launched the commercial exploitation of the phosphorite deposits that had been discovered in 1885. The mining and export of iron-ore was begun in 1908.

The mining of ore and phosphorite was carried out by several French companies which were closely linked with the monopoly capital of the metropolis. Relatively large capital investments were also made by Germans, Italians and Belgians. As for the national bourgeoisie, it had no hand whatsoever in the exploitation of Tunisia’s mines. Forced into the background by its financial and technical weakness, the national bourgeoisie owned mainly small enterprises, most of which were engaged in processing agricultural produce.

Railways were built in Tunisia to meet the needs of colonisation and the mining industry. Within a relatively short time Tunisia’s railway lines increased in length from 224 kilometres in 1881 to 1,375 kilometres in 1909. Ports and highways were also built.

The gradual growth of the colonists’ capitalist farming, of railway and port construction, the development of the mining industry and transport contributed to the emergence and formation of the Tunisian working class. The workers were very badly off. Legislation to protect them was non-existent. The organisation of labour at nearly all the factories was typically colonial in nature. Foreign workers and administrative staff received a “colonial bonus” and enjoyed a number of rights that placed them in a privileged position in comparison to the local workers. The Tunisian workers had no trade union organisations. Politically they remained under the influence of the national bourgeoisie and backed its anti-imperialist demands.

The native population was deprived of all rights. The French filled all the more or less important posts in the state apparatus. Colonial bureaucratic tyranny, racial discrimination and national oppression prevailed throughout the country. The Constitution of 1861 had lost all meaning and was not renewed. What political and civil rights the Tunisians had once possessed were flagrantly violated by the colonial administration. The Decree on the Press issued on October 14, 1884, forbade newspapers on pain of strict punishment to criticise “His Highness the Bey, the princes of his dynasty and the religious cults.” It also forbade them to criticise “the French Republic’s rights and authority in Tunisia.” The Decree of September 15, 1888, stipulated that “no association could be formed other than with the government’s permission.” According to the Decree of March 13, 1905, meetings could be held “freely” only on the condition that they were not for the purpose of discussing political or religious questions.

For a long time there were no representative institutions in Tunisia. It was only in 1891 that the Consultative Conference (a quasi-representative body of Tunisia’s French population) was formed. It consisted of representatives of French economic organisations (the chambers of commerce and agriculture). Some were appointed by the government, others were elected. Only the French colonists had the right to vote during the elections to the Consultative Conference. In 1907, however, sixteen Tunisian delegates appointed by the protectorate government were admitted. In 1910, the Consultative Conference was divided into two sections-French and native-like the Algerian Finance Delegations.


Colonisation, national oppression and the absence of political rights evoked widespread discontent in Tunisia, affecting the national bourgeoisie, some feudal circles and also the working class and peasantry. Even at the end of the 19th century, there had been peasant disturbances in Tunisia and the first Young Tunisian organisations and societies had been formed to oppose the protectorate and bring about Tunisia’s national revival.

The upsurge of the national movement in Tunisia coincided with the general awakening of Asia. The year 1905 marked the formation of the Republican Party which included the French petty-bourgeois democrats and the Tunisian nationalist intellectuals. Soon the Party split and the Arab nationalists, headed by Abd al-Aziz Taalbi, withdrew from its ranks and in 1909, joined the Tunisian Party (Hizb ‘Tunisi), which had been formed in 1907 by Ali Bash Hamba and Beshir Sfar. The split had been caused by differences over the question of nationalities. The Republican Party favoured the assimilation of Tunisians and restricted itself to demands for equality, while the Tunisian Party advocated large-scale constitutional reforms and, in the final analysis, independence. The Tunisian Party advanced the slogan of the “Algerian-Tunisian Nation” and strove to secure statehood for this nation.

In 1911, the Tunisian Party carried out an extensive political campaign in connection with Italian aggression in Tripolitania. The Tunisians collected money and medicaments. In various towns there were clashes between the Arabs and Europeans, which in some places grew into big demonstrations. The culminating point was the Jallaz incident of November 7 and 8, 1911. Jallaz was a Moslem cemetery in Tunis. The local authorities’ decision to immatriculate the cemetery led to a protest demonstration of several thousand, which was shot down by French troops and police.

In February 1912, a group of Tunisians demanded that the Tramway Company put an end to the discrimination of the Arabs, that it hire them on an equal basis with the Europeans and give them equal pay for equal work. When the administration refused to comply with these demands, the urban population launched a boycott. The affair began to take a serious turn. The frightened authorities declared a state of siege in Tunisia, closed down a number of news-papers, banned the Tunisian Party and arrested its leaders.

In March 1912, Abd al-Aziz Taalbi and Ali Bash Hamba were arrested and banished from the country. In 1913, Taalbi returned to Tunisia and renewed his campaign, while Ali Bash Hamba carried on his activities abroad.

The Young Tunisian leaders had had hopes of coming to a “mutual understanding” with the French Government, which they tried to persuade into making concessions to the national- liberation movement and also into helping Turkey and Kaiser Germany. The Germans, in turn, were nothing loathe to make use of the Tunisian national liberation movement. A secret memorandum drawn up by the German General Staff at the beginning of 1914 pointed to the need for giving all possible support to the North African Moslems’ struggle against French domination and also the need for normalising relations with them and assisting the Moslem national societies’ activities. Such relations were actually cultivated during the war, when several German agents were sent to North Africa to prevent the French from using Algeria and Tunisia as a source of strategic raw material and manpower.

Counting on the Young Turks’ and Germans’ assistance during World War I, the Young Tunisian leaders prepared for an anti-French uprising in North Africa. These hopes for help from abroad led to a certain underestimation of the forces and potentialities of the mass political movement in Tunisia itself and, consequently, to a certain degree of isolation from the masses.