By Anouar Boukhars

More than six years after the revolution that ousted former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s border regions remain hotbeds of social discontent and agitation.



A Region in Turmoil: Tunisia’s Southeast Border

The fact that Tunisia’s southeast border is seething with pervasive discontent and antigovernment hostility is not new. The region has always been hounded by exclusion and deprivation. From colonial rule to the reign of Ben Ali, the southern periphery was marginalized and stigmatized as a zone of tribalism, dereliction, and unruliness.

The French imposition of arbitrary borders and the confiscation of land and forced sedentarization of nomads in a region with weak agricultural potential disrupted the pastoral livelihood of the region’s population.  The reaffirmation of this asymmetrical squeeze by Tunisia’s first president after independence, Habib Bourguiba, generated an enduring sense of injustice and rebellion toward the center.

The first act of defiance came on the heels of independence in 1956 when the southern regions sided with Bourguiba’s political nemesis, Salah Ben Youssef, a southern nationalist leader who contested the dominance of the state apparatus and resources by elites from Tunis and the northeast coast.

The same political antagonisms were revived in the 2014 presidential election when the impoverished south voted massively against then presidential candidate Essebsi, a central fixture of the hegemonic power structures that have ruled Tunisia since independence. In both cases, the populations of the south were expressing discontent at the prevailing economic paradigm that has failed them. From Bourguiba’s authoritarian statism to Ben Ali’s crony economic liberalism, the southern regions found themselves at the losing end of an extremely lopsided economy.

Aside from the few jobs in the army and local government that the state doled out as political patronage, the southern populations had to fend for themselves through work in the underground economy. Families in the border region with Libya eked out a precarious existence mostly through occasional day labor in informal cross-border trade and trafficking.

Tunisia’s rocky relations with deposed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, killed by rebel forces in October 2011, accelerated the informalization of cross-border trade. The occasional border closures and expulsion of Tunisian workers from Libya opened the door for tribal cartels to develop lucrative cross-border services.

The Twazin tribe of Ben Guerdane and their allies in the Nwayel tribes in Libya developed vast informal markets in currency trading, human trafficking, and smuggling of a range of subsidized Libyan goods from fuel to flour and sugar.

The 1993 imposition of United Nations sanctions on Libya pushed people on both sides of the Tunisia-Libya border to rely on smuggling for their livelihoods.

The Ben Ali regime had tolerated, if not encouraged, the growth of such illicit centers of commercialization as safety valves, relieving societal pressures that might have otherwise exploded into civil unrest or massive migration into the more developed eastern coastal cities.

There were, however, two significant caveats to this informal agreement. The tribal cartels forswore engagement in drug and arms trafficking and committed to help the government protect the border from infiltration by drug and arms dealers.

When the government broke the principles of the tacit agreement, the border region sank into civil unrest. In the summer of 2010, informal cross-border traders and smugglers revolted against both the closure of the Ras Jedir border crossing into Libya and attempts by Ben Ali’s notorious in-laws to impose an exit tax on Tunisians crossing the border.

The rioting and violence ceased only when the president canceled the tax and ordered the opening of the border crossing. The same scenario occurred in early 2015 after the Tunisian government imposed a $15 export tax on foreigners, causing Libyan authorities to retaliate in kind. Deadly protests forced the authorities to suspend that border tax as well.

The fall of the Ben Ali regime disrupted cross-border markets, trade networks, and standards of behavior. It also upset the traditional internal and external hierarchies of tribal power. The dominant tribal elites and smuggling cartels were rivaled by once-peripheral tribes and young adventurous actors.

Taking advantage of the disorientation of the security services and disorganization of the border economy, the new actors expanded trading to previously prohibited goods such as alcohol and drugs. The introduction of violent extremists into the mix further muddles the black market landscape and makes it crucial to distinguish between innocuous informal networks of cross-border traders and entrepreneurs of organized crime and violence.

Unfortunately, Tunisian authorities and the media increasingly tend to lump all kinds of illicit trafficking together as endangering the state’s security. This tendency to criminalize the shadow economy alienates the local populations and the economic actors the government needs to help manage the border. It also aggravates the social crisis brewing in the south.

The rash of terrorist attacks in Tunisia and the Islamic State’s determined push into the country’s southern territory empowers the government’s security-first approach in the border areas. The March 2016 attack in Ben Guerdane increased border militarization to deter terrorism and stem the mushrooming smuggling trade.

The government accelerated the building of a 125-mile antiterror barrier along its border with Libya. The barrier, which Tunisia calls a “system of obstacles,” is made of sand banks and water-filled trenches to prevent vehicles and people carrying contraband from crossing the border.

To keep militants from entering Tunisia through Libya, the wall will be equipped with an electronic sensor system and fortified by observation towers and drones.

This militarization of the border, however, is not likely to be very effective until the government becomes serious about tackling the root causes of insecurity in the south. The building of a wall will neither stop terrorism nor stem the flow of smuggling contraband into the country.

Indeed, recent history suggests that closing off the southeastern border only encouraged the smuggling business. In the 1980s, Ben Guerdane became a major smuggling hub precisely when the border with Libya was closed. Border militarization will affect only the most vulnerable people who are dependent on trade in contraband and who lack the means and networks to circumvent border checks.

The most powerful and well-resourced smuggling rings use the main roads and benefit from the connivance of Tunisian border patrol agents and other security officials.

Conventional wisdom in Tunisia blames Libya for the country’s security woes. Many Tunisian officials believe the threats are primarily external and hence require a primarily security-based response. This approach prioritizes reinforcing border surveillance and developing the capacities of the intelligence agencies and security services to better detect and prevent the cross-border movements of militants and traffickers from Libya.

The Tunisian authorities’ focus on border reinforcement and increased checks over the Libyan frontier is important, but it risks deflecting attention from the root causes of insecurity. As a result, the socioeconomic problems that fuel political discontent, social unrest, and violent extremism have so far received only lip service from the state.

The traditional approach to counterterrorism has become a fixture of Tunisia’s policy toward its southeastern periphery. In 2014, Essebsi successfully ran for president as the candidate most capable of restoring stability and security to Tunisia. For many in the south who rejected his candidacy, Essebsi’s tenure as president is equated with punitiveness and territorial stigmatization.

Essebsi’s denigration of the south—he called his opponent, a southerner named Moncef Marzouki, “the candidate of jihadists” during the 2014 presidential election—confirms the suspicion of many that the political elite is deliberately allowing their regions to rot.  Essebsi had already courted controversy in September 2011 when he spoke of the civilized regions of the littoral, implying that those of the south were uncivilized.

The result is that Essebsi’s promises of tackling lawlessness along the borders have collided with the harsh reality of communities whose livelihoods depend on the free movement of people and goods. The transborder dimension of social and tribal relations between Tunisia’s southeast and Libya’s west makes any disruptions to cross-border trade an explosive affair.

The communities in Tunisia’s southeast have solid family, economic, and cultural ties with western Libya. It should not be surprising that blocking those interactions often leads to protests and rioting. Most southerners believe that the political system is controlled by the northeastern elite whose aim is to perpetuate their structural marginalization and exclusion. Instead of addressing the conditions of uneven regional development, the government is seen as impeding the only source of revenue available to border communities. The violence is therefore less about opposing state control of its frontiers and more about the lack of a viable alternative to illicit trade.

The successive postrevolutionary governments have failed to make even the slightest dent in the southeast’s woeful lack of basic infrastructure services. With the exception of the island of Djerba, a tourist haven located at the southern end of the Gulf of Gabès, much of the southeast is beleaguered by low levels of development. For example, the governorate of Tataouine, which has become a flashpoint for protests against marginalization, has one of the highest numbers of unemployed graduates in the country (58 percent).

Despite the vastness of its territory (25 percent of Tunisia) and its oil fields, which account for 40 percent of Tunisian production, the region is held back by poor physical assets such as roads, hospitals, and schools. This deficit stifles economic activity and social services delivery even in areas that have experienced significant industrialization. In the governorate of Gabès, which lies along the southeastern coast and boasts one of the largest industrial zones in Tunisia, the rate of unemployment and illiteracy is much higher than the national average.

Worse, in a region choked by industrial pollution and unsafe working conditions, the lack of access to hospitals and healthcare speaks volumes about the degree of marginalization experienced by local communities. “Al-sha’b yureed al-bii’a-esselima” (the people want a clean environment), has become a common refrain during protests over pollution by the phosphate industry.

Locals complain about rising infertility, frequent miscarriages, and high rates of cancer and respiratory and cardiovascular disease. They also blame the phosphate mines and refineries for depleting local water sources, damaging seaside palm oases, and harming the livelihoods of farmers.

To the dismay of the poorest regions, the successive postrevolutionary governments proved incapable of correcting these deficiencies. The Islamists, in particular, who suffered repression under the old authoritarian regime, were expected to break with the policies that favored the littoral. In its two-year stint in power, Ennahda increased the public funds destined for the poorest regions by 30 percent. But extensive delays with the infrastructure projects—due to both structural and political causes—derailed the government’s plans. The result is that the amounts spent were less than their prerevolutionary levels.

Conflicts between the central government, local representatives, and governorate authorities also slowed the pace of investments and capital expenditures. At the central level, a lack of organizational unity led to inconsistency and incoherence in designing and implementing development projects in the most marginalized regions. The lack of coordination between the Ministry of Regional Development and the Ministries of Industry, Finance, Economy, Employment, Agriculture and Environment, and Equipment fragmented economic policies and led to each ministry pursuing its own narrow interests and protecting its turf.

In an unstable political environment, the governors appointed by the Islamist-led government faced dogged resistance from the local elite, unions, and regional administrations. The fact that most governors were associated with Ennahda and lacked administrative and economic experience generated more distrust and tension. The same fate befell the promised free-trade zone between Ben Guerdane and Ras Jedir and a gas transport canal between Gabès and Libya.

Since his appointment in August 2016, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has been under pressure to reactivate and accelerate the implementation of suspended investment projects. The establishment of free-trade zones and industrial areas in the border regions are a test of the government’s intentions. Good intentions, however, are not sufficient.

For example, the proposed free-trade zone is to be modelled on Morocco’s special economic enclaves and industrial parks in Tangier. But Tangier’s recent transformation into a major manufacturing hub and commercial gateway required significant investments in ports, roads, railways, air transportation, water supply, and a range of other measures to attract private sector investors and to train workers for manufacturing in the automotive and aerospace sectors.

The success in implementing these initiatives is also attributed to the strong political will standing behind them. As with everything else in Morocco, projects that are ordained by the king move faster. Those that are not get bogged down in staggering bureaucracy, political squabbling, and cost overruns. Clearly there is no equivalency with Tunisia’s democratic political system.

There is no doubt that Chahed has his work cut out for him. With poor infrastructure, dwindling populations, and less-qualified workers than the regions along Tunisia’s eastern Mediterranean coast, the southern regions are naturally less attractive for investment. Bureaucratic hurdles and corruption also get in the way of business development. Rising security threats compound these difficulties by scaring away potential foreign direct investment. These staggering challenges are not confined to the southeastern border. Tunisia’s western border is equally bedeviled by problems of extreme poverty, severe inequality, mass unemployment, and rising extremist activity.

So far, Chahed’s national unity government has failed to summon the political will and funding to spur economic development in the lagging border regions. The most striking aspect has been the lack of any real integrated action plans for the social and economic inclusion of border communities. This dearth of economic progress creates a seething cauldron of anger that increasingly expresses itself in protests, street violence, and violent extremism.


Anouar Boukhars – nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is an associate professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.


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