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History, Tunisia Tightens Its Ties with the Arab World

Arab East, Abidine Ben Ali, Bourguiba, French families, rapprochement

During 1963 and 1964 Tunisia moved toward closer economic and political cooperation in northern Africa. The border dispute with Algeria was settled, and schemes of technical cooperation were drawn up. Tunisian relations with Morocco also improved. During 1965-1966 Tunisia supported the establishment of the Maghreb Permanent Consultative Committee to work for greater North African regional cooperation.

Meanwhile, during 1963-1964, Tunisia had moved to strengthen ties with the Arab East, especially Egypt. In May 1964 the National Assembly enacted the expropriation of all foreign-owned lands, which mainly affected about 300,000 hectares (750,000 acres) belonging to French families. France’s reaction was to cancel all financial assistance to Tunisia, leaving the country in serious economic crisis.

One implication of the nationalization of land was the beginnings of a greater emphasis toward socialist collectivism. During the elections of November 1964, renewed emphasis was placed on “Tunisian Socialism,” and the Neo-Destour Party changed its name to Parti Socialiste Destourien. In that election President Bourguiba, the sole candidate, won by 96 percent of the votes; the Destour Party won all 90 of the National Assembly seats. In April 1965, Bourguiba’s newly forged ties with the Arab East were shattered when he unexpectedly proposed a negotiated settlement between the Arab states and Israel on the basis of the 1947 UN resolution. This was rejected by both Israel and most Arab states led by Egypt. Differences between Tunisia and other Arab states were further exacerbated when relations with Egypt were severed, and Tunisia began to boycott Arab League meetings.

In 1966 a rapprochement was achieved between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, but relations with Egypt further deteriorated. In the Yemeni war Tunisia supported Saudi Arabia.

When the Arab-Israeli diplomatic confrontation intensified in April-May 1967, Tunisia gave full support to the Arab cause, and diplomatic relations with Egypt were restored.

Bourguiba was reelected to a third term in November 1969. In December the National Assembly approved a constitutional amendment providing for a premier, to be appointed by the president, who would assume the presidency in case of death or disability. This was expected to ensure a continuation of the moderate domestic and foreign policies laid down by Bourguiba. In March 1975, he was named president for life “in recognition of services rendered.”

In the early 1970s Tunisia pursued peaceful economic development, particularly of its petroleum resources. Relations with France and China improved, but Bourguiba expressed his distrust of U.S. and Soviet intentions in the Middle East. In 1982 Tunisia gave refuge to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat and several hundred of his followers who had been forced out of Lebanon. Domestic rioting early in 1984 forced Bourguiba to rescind price increases on basic foodstuffs. Relations with Libya were severed in 1985 after Libya expelled some 30,000 Tunisian workers. Later in the year an Israeli air raid demolished the headquarters of the PLO near Tunis. In November 1987 Prime Minister Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali assumed the presidency after the president was declared senile. While retaining the secret police, Ben Ali freed political prisoners, legalized most opposition parties, and eased restrictions on the press. Although several parties contested the April 1989 elections (Tunisia’s first free elections since 1956), his Democratic Constitutional Rally Party won all 141 seats in parliament, and Ben Ali was elected to the presidency unopposed. In the early 1990s he cracked down on Muslim fundamentalists. In 1994 and 1999 Ben Ali was again reelected to the presidency.

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