Geography, as is the case with every other country, teaches much about Tunisia.
It is the Arab country closest to the heart of Europe, jutting out toward Sicily at the central Mediterranean's narrowest point. The slow-moving car ferry from La Goulette, east of Tunis, to Trapani in northwestern Sicily takes roughly seven hours. You can fly the distance in about an hour or so. Because of Tunisia's proximity to Italy, trade and politics between this part of North Africa and Sicily were often intermingled. In the medieval era, Christian merchants dominated the souks of Tunisia, even as Sicilian politicians in Palermo hatched plans for the conquest of Tunis. From the 9th until the 11th centuries, Sicily was ruled by Arab dynasties from Tunisia such as the Aghlabids. The divide between these two intimate neighbors on both sides of the Mediterranean hardened only with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of movable type, which created formalized states and different linguistic communities.
Tunisia was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; the road network of the northern third of Tunisia today was in many places originally laid by the Romans. Tunisia was essentially Greater Carthage: an age-old cluster of civilization. And yet, as I've written previously, the occupying Romans made a geographic distinction that has lasted until today, and sheds light on the Arab Spring.
After the Roman General Scipio defeated the Carthaginian forces of Hannibal in 202 B.C. outside of Tunis, he dug a demarcation ditch that marked the extent of civilized territory. Still visible in places, it runs from Tabarka on Tunisia's northwestern coast southward and turns directly eastward to Sfax, another Mediterranean port. The towns beyond that line have fewer Roman remains and today tend to be poorer and less developed, with historically higher rates of unemployment. The town of Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab Spring started in December 2010, when a vendor of fruits and vegetables set himself on fire as an act of protest, lies beyond Scipio's line. We can say, therefore, that the Arab Spring began in the most European of Arab countries, yet in a part of that country that was relatively underdeveloped.
In one sense, geography argues for Tunisia's cultural and political unity. Tunisia is not vast in the way of its neighbors, Algeria and Libya. Its topography is not riven to a great extent by mountains. There are no substantial sectarian or ethnic divides, all of which makes Tunisia relatively easy to govern. In fact, Tunisia, with its Roman-originated road system, is an authentic state, with real bureaucratic institutions and a real identity. Tunisia was the first place in the Arab world that came into contact with post-Enlightenment European thought during the 19th century when Ottoman officials based in Tunis such as Rifa'a al-Tahtawi went to study at the Sorbonne and brought back Western ideas.
This geographical and historical tendency was further buttressed by the dynamism of its post-World War II political leader, Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba led Tunisians in a peaceful struggle for independence from the French in 1956 and created a strong secular identity for the new polity, allowing him to be compared with Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
But in another sense, Tunisia is plagued by divisions, which are partially geographically determined. In the 1970s and 1980s, I had the occasion to travel back and forth between Tunisia's austere interior plateau and its luscious and sprawling Mediterranean coast. The towns of the interior like Kairouan and Siliana were provincial and suffused with Islamic traditionalism. There you felt very far from Europe and in the bosom of Arab North Africa. The coastal towns, on the other hand, places such as Sousse and Hammamet, were teeming with flowers (hibiscus and bougainvillea) and with men and women dressed more fashionably by European standards. The coast, where the hordes of Western tourists congregated, belonged more to Mediterranean civilization than to North Africa per se. Then there were the interior towns further to the south, closer to the Sahara, like Gafsa and Medenine, which had a windblown, back-of-beyond aura placing them atmospherically in the African Sahel. Indeed, Tunisia is one big, small country.