Roman Africa

The economic and political fault lines that separated Carthage and Numidia are the ones that separate Tunisia and Algeria—and the Romans drew them

From the parapets of Le Kef, on a rocky spur in northwestern Tunisia, one can see deep into the mountains of Algeria, whose border is a short distance away. A fort of some kind has existed here since Carthaginian times, 2,500 years ago, and the ocher ruins of ancient cities are all around. Dominating the view to the southwest is Jugurtha's Table, a massive mesa atop which the Numidian King Jugurtha held out against a Roman army from 112 to 105 B.C. But it is the modern town of Le Kef—and also the political tension along the Algerian border—that demonstrate the relevance of antiquity to contemporary politics in Arab North Africa.

Le Kef, a town of 50,000, is no fundamentalist enclave or Third World disaster zone. Its women are assertive and dress in fashionable Western clothes. It has a large Internet café, cash machines, new apartment blocks, elegant street lighting, dependable plumbing and electricity, and reforested hillsides. The taxi drivers use meters and wear seat belts. Nearly everyone I met had been to France or Italy, and the road to Tunis, the capital, two and a quarter hours to the east, is busy with traffic. But no one I met in Le Kef had ever been to Souk Ahras, a town of Le Kef's size in Algeria, although it is only an hour's drive away. "There is nothing in Algeria—anyway, it is too dangerous," a local businessman told me last January, referring to the Algerian civil war, in which Islamic extremists hijacked buses and murdered the passengers. Tunisia's Culture Minister, Abdelbaki Hermassi, says, "Our reference groups are the French and the Italians, not the Algerians and Libyans."

Despite its long borders with Algeria and Libya, Tunisia "is an island," explains Oussama Romdhani, the director of the government's information agency. Much of the frontier is desert, and the land crossings are used mainly by Algerians and Libyans, who come to buy consumer products, including alcohol.

Since the days of ancient Carthage the area that makes up present-day Tunisia has been like this: an oasis of urbanity, relative prosperity, and stable government jutting out into the Mediterranean, close to Sicily, and yet squeezed between vast tracts of unruly tribal territory. Though lacking the oil and natural gas of their Libyan and Algerian neighbors, Tunisia's 9.6 million people are by some estimates 60 percent middle class, with a poverty rate of only six percent. Yearly economic growth rarely falls below five percent, and inflation hovers around three percent. The World Economic Forum rates Tunisia the most competitive country in Africa, whereas Algeria does not even appear on its list of twenty-four African economies. Although many developing countries waste money on grandiose projects, Tunisia devotes a quarter of its budget to education.

"People say our success is because of this policy or that policy, or because we have been fortunate to have good leaders," Romdhani says. "Though that is all true, there must be something deeper going on." The explanation for Tunisia's success begins with the fact that modern Tunisia corresponds roughly to the borders of ancient Carthage and of the Roman province that replaced it in 146 B.C., after a third and final war between the two powers. "Africa," originally a Roman term, meant Tunisia long before it meant anything else. Archaeologists have uncovered 200 Roman cities in the fertile farmlands of northern Tunisia, where the vast majority of the population lives. North Africa was the granary of the Roman Empire and produced more olive oil than Italy. The Romans built thousands of miles of roads there, and also bridges, dams, aqueducts, and irrigation systems; one aqueduct alone, still partially visible near the town of Zaghouan, carried 8.5 million gallons of water daily to Carthage, fifty-five miles to the north. Fifteen percent of Rome's senators came from Tunisia. Not only the Romans but also the fifth-century Vandals and every conqueror since, including the French in the nineteenth century, made the fertile north of Tunisia their base in North Africa.

In contrast, Algeria and Libya have virtually no history as organized states before the arrival of colonial mapmakers; they connote not nations so much as vague geographical expressions. The ancient cities of Thagaste (the modern Souk Ahras) and Hippo Regius (the modern Annaba), in eastern Algeria, were always oriented toward Carthage, where Saint Augustine, born in Thagaste in 354, went to study; through much of history the cities of western Algeria were linked politically to the Berber kingdoms of Morocco. Libya is almost all desert, with the exception of the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, which traditionally have had little in common: Tripoli, the capital, usually had close economic ties with present-day Tunisia, and Benghazi was aligned with Egypt. The diatribes of the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi about Arab unity are attempts to mask Libya's own disunity. The fourteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun wrote in his Muqaddimah (Introduction to History) that the areas that are now Algeria and Libya were rarely stable. Consider the situation today: After a bloody war of independence from France, Algeria became a Soviet-style state in the 1960s. A brief experiment with democracy in the early 1990s collapsed into civil war and anarchy, from which the country has only partially recovered. Qaddafi's thirty years of misrule have created no institutions in Libya except those of terror. Meanwhile, from 1956 through 1987 President Habib Bourguiba's success at building a relatively secular Westernized state in Tunisia earned him the appellation "the Arab Atatürk"—a reference to modern Turkey's founder. Bourguiba's successor, Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, by dramatically expanding the middle class through enlightened dictatorship, has earned comparisons to Lee Kuan Yew, of Singapore.

Tunisia's borders extend far beyond its fertile north, and it is in those far reaches where problems of development arise. In the archaeology museum at Chemtou, near Le Kef, where the Romans quarried for marble, there is a map showing the fossa regia—"demarcation ditch"—that the Roman general Scipio dug after defeating Hannibal in 202 B.C. The ditch, the remains of which are still visible, runs from Tabarka, on Tunisia's northwest coast, southward and then sharply eastward to Sfax, another Tunisian port. Even today that line has meaning. The Tunisian towns and villages beyond the fossa regia have far fewer ancient remains and—more significant—are poorer. There men and women wear traditional head wraps; unemployment seems higher, judging by the number of men hanging out in cafés; bus stations often have no posted timetables. The feeling is more like North Africa and less like Southern Europe.

In antiquity Numidia lay beyond the demarcation ditch, an undeveloped region that included eastern Algeria, southern Tunisia, and western Libya. Beyond Numidia there was little except scattered settlements. Indeed, although Roman settlements dotted Africa's Mediterranean coast from Morocco to Egypt, the only concentration of them was within the fossa regia: the heart of modern Tunisia and its economy.

"Because urbanization in northern Tunisia has always been more extensive, going back to ancient Carthage," Abdelbaki Hermassi explains, "sedentary life is older here, and tribal identity based on nomadism correspondingly weak. Thus the centralized state is more deeply embedded." Regimes in Algeria and Libya never succeeded in weakening tribal identities, so governments there have been feeble unless they resorted to cruelty. President Ben Ali—who, incidentally, occupies a palace overlooking the ruins of Carthage—must make a special effort to integrate Tunisia's south through road building, telephone lines, and the like. "In Roman times you could ignore the periphery," Hermassi says. "Today we need to draw in the shadow zone beyond Roman settlement that is within our borders."

Just as the settled farmers of Carthage and Roman "Africa" were constantly threatened by the semi-nomadic pastoralists of Numidia, Tunisians today feel threatened by the instability all around them. Thus they put great store by the fact that in 1995 Tunisia became the first Arab country to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For Tunisians the future leads, as it has since antiquity, to Rome.