In the wake of the uprisings that swept across the Middle East in early 2011, Tunisia remains the only country that may be inching toward a relatively successful outcome. Few, however, are acquainted with Tunisian history or society. In this, his second edition of A History of Modern Tunisia, Perkins, a leading scholar who has spent his professional life studying that country, provides a comprehensive overview to fill that gap.
While Tunisia's previous position in the international arena was historically limited, as the first Arab country in the twenty-first century to overthrow its repressive dictatorship, it is frequently cited in Western capitals as a successful model for political transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Having subsequently held elections, struggled through post-revolutionary political turbulence and instability, and more recently managed to hammer out a new constitution, there may be some truth to that optimism.
Perkins takes his readers on a tightly-packed tour of modern Tunisian history, focusing on the pre-colonial and French colonial eras, the nationalist struggle for independence (1956), and the challenges of independence. In the process, he focuses on several themes that underscore Tunisian public life: the search for political leadership; a quest to reach a consensus on the role of religion in society; the management of the economy; and efforts to cultivate the country's cultural heritage.
At some points, a more detailed analysis is called for. For example, the social importance of Habib Bourguiba's control of the nationalist movement, which catapulted figures from the periphery to the pinnacle of Tunisian politics, could be discussed further. And while the book's new chapter on the Tunisian revolution offers much needed detail, some aspects, such as the role of the country's trade unions in these events, could be amplified. These questions may be explored in more detail in future studies, which will undoubtedly rely on Perkins' broad overview.