Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969



The seizure of Algeria by the French in 1830 predetermined the fate of Tunisia. Occupying a strategic position on the Mediterranean Sea and bordering Algeria on the east, it naturally attracted the attention of the French colonialists, who had set about building a colonial empire in North Africa. The short-sighted Tunisian rulers, however, were not only unaware of the threat; they even rejoiced over the adversities that befell their age-old enemy – the Algerian dey. Taking advantage of the enmity between the Algerian and Tunisian feudal lords, France succeeded in getting the Tunisian bey to supply bread for the French army in Algeria.

To facilitate the coming seizure of Tunisia, France declared that Tunisia was a state in its own right and independent of Turkey and that she intended to defend Tunisia’s independence. Mahmud II, the Turkish Sultan, was pursuing a policy of centralising the Ottoman Empire and trying to establish effective control by the central government over the remote provinces. He had decided, in particular, to strengthen the Porte’s authority in its African domains. In 1835, the Turks occupied Tripoli, overthrew the ruling dynasty of janissary beys and turned the region into an ordinary province of the Ottoman Empire. In 1836, it was Tunisia’s turn. The Turkish fleet was despatched to Tunisia, but France objected to the Turkish plans and sent her own fleet to meet that of the Turks. Confronted with the threat of war, the Turkish fleet retreated. Thus, the status-quo in Tunisia was preserved.

No sooner had the Turkish fleet left Tunisian waters than France attempted to invade the region. In 1837, French troops attacked Tunisian territory, pillaged several villages and burnt crops. Border disputes, which had arisen in the course of the Algerian-Turkish demarcation and also the question of tribute, which the Tunisian bey had formerly paid to Algeria, served as an excuse for this barbarous attack. Under pressure from England, however, the French troops were finally compelled to withdraw from Tunisian territory.

England, who had rather easily reconciled herself to the French occupation of Algeria, put up serious opposition to the French plans in Tunisia. This was due chiefly to Tunisia’s strategic position. Her ports, Bizerta and Goletta, were situated on the narrow strait between the western and eastern Mediterranean. The British energetically set about fortifying their positions; they seized Malta and were reluctant to permit the establishment of French bases in that area. The conflict of 1837 exposed the tense Anglo-French rivalry over Tunisia, which continued for more than forty years.

The Anglo-French struggle for domination in Tunisia acquired various forms. First of all, the British and the French were competing for the Tunisian market. Secondly, they were competing for concessions on land, mines, the construction of communication routes, the means of communication, ports and other undertakings. Thirdly, they were competing for political influence over the Tunisian bey and his administration; among the bey’s high officials were French and British agents. Finally, they were competing for financial control over Tunisia. It must be noted that this struggle for hegemony in Tunisia developed against a background of reforming activities by the Tunisian beys, which ultimately cleared the way for the European bankers, who planned the conquest and enslavement of Tunisia.


The threat of a French and Turkish conquest induced the Tunisian beys to modernise their country and in the first place the army. The chief reformer was Ahmed bey (1837-55), who pursued a policy of manoeuvre between the British and the French. An admirer of Napoleon and his strategies, this “enlightened despot” founded a military school, abolished slavery, purchased ships, cannon and equipment from abroad, built barracks, fortifications and palaces. The reorganisation of the army and the building programme required huge sums of money, especially since the European military instructors and out-fitters shamelessly robbed the bey. Apart from the great sums spent on the army, a considerable amount was wasted on the upkeep of the court. Moreover, the state treasury was plundered by the bey’s courtiers and especially by Mustafa Khaznadar, who for forty years was the actual ruler of Tunisia. In order to defray expenses, the government raised taxes and was finally compelled to ask for loans.

Most of the money that was borrowed was squandered. Instead of being used for the development of Tunisia’s productive forces, it was embezzled by the ruling clique, spent on extravagances and luxuries, on the construction of palaces, on the millions of presents which the beys gave to their favourites and on the grotesque Tunisian army. Mohammed All, the Egyptian Pasha, had always regarded a modern army as a serious weapon of political struggle, but his contemporary, Ahmed Bey, regarded it merely as a form of amusement. True, the army served as a means to suppress the popular uprisings, but in its former state it had also successfully coped with this task. In other words, the military reform was useless. The modernised army was incapable of doing anything apart from fighting against the unarmed people.

Huge sums of money were squandered aimlessly. From the French and British the Bey purchased guns that did not. shoot, ammunition that did not explode and ships that sunk even before they got out to sea. In other words, he spent huge sums on spoiled goods that the British and French factory-owners could not dispose of elsewhere, on trash, discarded by the British and French armies. The burden of these expenses weighed heavily on the people, and this in turn aroused serious discontent in Tunisia. In 1840, a popular uprising took place in Tunis, in 1842, there was one in Goletta, followed by an uprising in Béja in 1843.

The French and British instructors and military advisers invited by the Bey to serve in his toy-like army and fleet spent much of their time spying and interfered in Tunisia’s internal affairs. The representatives of France and England extolled the military reforms of the Bey, encouraged his reformatory itch to place Tunisia in the clutches of the European banks.

In 1856, at the end of the Eastern war, the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Mejid, issued a hatti-humayun, which granted a number of rights and privileges to foreign capital. England and France demanded the same rights and guarantees from the Tunisian Bey. In 1857, Mohammed Bey (1855-59) issued the Ahd El-Aman (the Security Pact), which repeated the main stipulations of the hatti-sherif Gulhane of 1839 and the hatti-humayun of 1856. The pact proclaimed the equality of all subjects before the law irrespective of their religion, and also personal immunity and inviolability of property. In 1858, a municipal council was founded in Tunis and in 1861, during the reign of Mohammed es-Sadik Bey (1859-82), the Tunisian Constitution was promulgated, which proclaimed, in particular, the establishment of a consultative organ – the Supreme Council. Moreover, it envisaged the construction of railways, ports, telegraphs, and a reorganisation of the tax system and the army.

Foreign businessmen were quick to take advantage of these reforms. The British received concessions for the construction of the first Tunisian railway between Tunis and Goletta; the French received concessions for the construction of a telegraph and for the restoration of the Zaghwan aqueduct. This meant that foreigners were granted the right to own land in Tunisia. On October 10, 1863, England imposed an agreement on Tunisia, the first clause of which pointed out that henceforward British subjects would be permitted to acquire immovable property of any kind in the Tunisian regency and to own it. The same rights applied to the French subjects on the strength of the Franco-Tunisian Treaty concluded as far back as 1824 and ensuring France the most favoured nation treatment. Later France secured more substantial legal guarantees and in 1871, achieved the publication of the Bey’s decree, which granted French citizens the right to acquire land in Tunisia. The same rights were granted to Italian, Austrian and Prussian subjects.


The penetration of foreign capital into Tunisia brought financial enslavement just as it was doing in Turkey and Egypt. Immediately after the Eastern war, the European banks began to impose unfair loans on Tunisia, which quickly entangled her in the net of financial dependence.

By 1862, the promissory debt of the Tunisian Bey had reached 28,000,000 francs. This was a considerable sum for Tunisia and brought her to the verge of bankruptcy. Taking advantage of this, a consortium of French banks offered the Bey a loan of 35,000,000 francs. The Bey accepted the proposal and the agreement was signed on May 6, 1863. It turned out that out of the 35,000,000 francs about 10,000,000 (9,772,000 francs, to be exact) were deducted by the bankers and out of the remaining 25,000,000 about 20,000,000 francs were paid in the deliveries of old stocks. All that the Bey received was a mere 5,640,000 francs, which were immediately handed over to discharge the floating debt. For all this Tunisia undertook to repay within fifteen years 63,000,000 francs (i.e., the original sum of 35,000,000 and 28,000,000 in interest) plus an additional 13,000,000 for commission payments.

Far from curing her bankruptcy, Tunisia had merely fallen out of the frying pan into the fire. The French banks reaped the profits without a thought for the fate of the Tunisian people. How could Tunisia accept such harsh terms? Unfortunately, the Tunisian people did not ask that question. Everything was decided by the Bey and his ministers headed by Mustafa Khaznadar, who had been bribed by the French banks and on their behalf ruined his own country.

The situation in Tunisia grew worse day by day. The feudal yoke was supplemented by foreign enslavement. The reforms had not touched the core of Tunisian feudalism, which was fully preserved. The payment of foreign debts called for ever greater sums of money. In search of funds, the state doubled, and in some regions trebled, the poll-tax – mejba. In reply to this, in 1863, a popular uprising under the leadership of Ali ben Gadakhum broke out. All Tunisia rose in rebellion against the feudal clique, which had ruined the country in the interests of foreign capital. The uprising of 1863-64 was put down and the conditions of the people remained just as unbearable as they had been before. Up to nine-tenths of the Tunisian budget went on the payment of debts.

In search of a way out, the Bey once more turned to the foreign banks, from which he received a new loan of 25,000,000 francs in 1865. As security for the loan, the foreign usurers received access to the revenue of the state customs. This loan, like the previous one, turned out to be a swindle. Tunisia received hardly anything out of the 25,000,000 francs. The banks retained a considerable sum for commission, emission, and so on; the rest was used to pay the interest on the previous debt. Only 3,500,000 francs were left for the Tunisian Government, but even this was not paid in cash but in “kind” - for 2,500,000 francs Tunisia received one frigate and for 1,000,000 francs the promise of cannons.

After the new loan, the situation became catastrophic. Plundering exceeded all bounds. To pay the foreign debt, the Tunisian treasury wrung everything it could out of the peasants and the handicraftsmen. The people were beaten, tortured and executed. To add to all this a terrible famine swept the region. People ate grass, roots and human flesh, an epidemic of cholera broke out and the people began fleeing by the thousands to neighbouring Tripolitania. Uprisings flared up in a number of localities. In such circumstances the Tunisian Government was compelled to stop the payment of foreign loans.

The Bey government went bankrupt in 1867, eight years before the same fate overcame Turkey and Egypt. Taking advantage of this, the European Powers established financial control over Tunisia. In 1869, an International Financial Commission was formed to control the income and expenditure of the Tunisian Government. Representatives of the French, Anglo-Maltese and Italian usurers participated in the work of the commission. France played the leading role. The overall sum of the Tunisian debt was determined at 125,000,000 francs. Tunisia undertook to pay five per cent, or 6,250,000 francs per year, which was half of all state expenditure. The International Financial Commission took over control of all Tunisia’s customs revenue. Should this turn out to be insufficient, the government was obliged to pay the deficit.

Tunisia had become a patrimony of the foreign banks, their semi-colony. But which group of capitalists would gain supremacy and turn it into its colony was not clear. Fierce rivalry developed between England and France, a struggle in which Italy was soon to take an active part.