Decolonizing Tunisia’s Border Violence: Moving Beyond Imperial Structures and Imaginaries

Mouna Karray, Avant La Chute (I), 2017
Mouna Karray, Avant La Chute (I), 2017

In early March 2016, the small border town of Ben Guerdane, located 550 kilometers southeast of Tunis, was suddenly catapulted onto the international news stage. Ben Guerdane is known in Tunisia as a marketplace for currency exchange and a hub for the trade in cheap merchandise – from subsidized Libyan goods, especially fuel, in the period preceding the 2011 NATO intervention and overthrow of Qadhaffi, to East Asian imports as the border economy has globalized in recent years. The town, and region more generally, is also known for its history of fierce anti-colonial resistance and colonial-era legacies of political and economic marginalization. Yet it was not history, poverty or the town’s political economy that caught the attention of much of the world on March 7, 2016. Rather, it was an alleged ISIS-connected attack on a border patrol. The attack resulted in the death of seven civilians and 13 members of the security forces, with 40 individuals suspected of having participated in the attacks killed, and seven arrested.

Coming on the heels of the February U.S.-led airstrikes on the western Libyan city of Sabratha, in which over 40 alleged militants were killed, the attacks were invoked by many Western journalists and politicians as an explanation for ratcheting up the Libyan military intervention. The politics engendered by the attacks would also facilitate Tunisia’s further incorporation into an expansive imperial security architecture – one dominated by the United States, and key European states.

Overnight, Ben Guerdane became synonymous with the nebulous threat of “border violence,” a ubiquitous feature of “war on terror” narratives. Extending beyond their traditional conceptualization as geographical or spatial demarcations, borders are today attributed with a certain form of agency. Not only are they the peripheral material spaces where illicit behavior takes place, but they themselves are deemed responsible for producing and multiplying illegality.

The zones of threat surrounding borders are incessantly shifting. They are expanding, extensive geographical spaces in which the security state is deemed to have insufficiently penetrated, from expansive desert and mountain scapes, to unruly urban informal markets. As an excerpt from an International Crisis Group report explained: “At Ben Guerdane (the Tunisia-Libya border) … the heads of contraband cartels benefit from the weak presence of the State to develop a system of parallel trafficking.” An ontological framing of violence as inherent in certain communities and geographies, presents border violence in biological terms such as “contagious,” 1 “spreading,” and easily morphing from one type to another: “Although there may only be about 100 armed militants entrenched in the mountainous, forested areas…the number of people involved in the lucrative illegal trade networks and associated violence runs into the tens of thousands along the borders and in the suburbs of the major cities.” 2

Borders in this sense are both material, entailing territorial demarcations and the infrastructures and practices that encapsulate them, and affective – as border practices produce what Timothy Mitchell describes as “state effects.” At the same time that they reinforce dominant narratives of the state, they infuse “racially and ethnically marked bodies,” 3 with certain communities themselves interpolated as zones of threat, or “exceptional,” extra-constitutional spaces.

A multiplicity of governmental, intergovernmental, supranational, transnational, private and public agencies have assigned themselves the task of solving Tunisia’s and the broader Maghreb’s “border problem.” The role of power and interests in shaping the various policy prescriptions and the analyses on which they are based often goes unremarked, assuming the guise of “technical” advice or common sense. Demonstrating a failure to identify and elaborate conflicts of interest that would arise from the provision of “assistance” by various (neo)colonial/imperial actors in the region, a passage from one of the more nuanced of this genre of reports is emblematic of the tendency to insinuate objectivity and neutrality:

Governments fear a scenario in which jihadist groups move from one sanctuary to another, exploiting the terrain and state weaknesses… In response, the European Union, the United Nations, the United States, and France have all provided Libya and Tunisia with technical assistance in security sector reforms, as well as military and financial aid. 4

What kinds of interesting insights might approaching Tunisia’s borders from an alternative viewpoint yield? What if rather than starting from Tunisia’s “border problem,” analysis instead started from problematizing the very concern with “border violence” itself? Though certainly predating the revolution, such concerns have proliferated in the aftermath of 2010–11 and have accompanied profound institutional and economic changes enabling Tunisia’s further incorporation into the global capitalist economy and (neo)colonial forms of value extraction and appropriation. How can a longue durée approach to Tunisia’s borders help us understand not only the nature but also the kinds of work Tunisia’s borders do in terms of producing certain political and socio-economic realities?

Theorizing Border Violence

Decontextualized narratives of the region’s “instability” elide a much longer and more complicated history of border violence in the region. The violence of border-making was at the heart of colonial expansion. Land appropriation, enclosures, and new spatial orderings demarcating specific jurisdictions have been crucial to the different forms of extraction and accumulation associated with early and late stages of racial capitalism. 5 Though borders are often invoked in anti-colonial contexts because of their role in establishing that ostensible cornerstone of international law – sovereign equality – they must also be seen as both reflective as well as constitutive of the hierarchies and deep inequalities of the international system.

Describing the different ways in which national security power has functioned to underpin U.S. empire in the context of the “war on terror,” Daryl Li reminds us that it is not only through invasions and economic interventions but also control of movement – in particular, the extra-western movement of Muslim travelers and diasporas. Li critiques Eurocentric narratives of mobility that “leave out the longstanding patterns of trade, kinship, labor, and learning that link different parts of the non-western world, thereby rendering some people seemingly random, aberrational, or otherwise “out of place.” One prominent feature of the “war on terror” discourse has been its fetishization and manufactured “suspicion of mobility, exchange, and cosmopolitanism on terms not defined or controlled by the west.” 6

Dominant discourses assume an inevitable and objective rationality, obscuring the contingent and detailed histories and numerous instances of violence at the core of border making. 7 They also mask the work of imperial interventions, checkpoints, high-tech surveillance, and militarized policing in enforcing the work of borders and in enabling and facilitating certain forms of human and material circulation (e.g., of goods, finances, (“white”/wealthy) travelers, weapons) and disciplining and controlling others – in particular, those movements deemed “excessive” (racialized, gendered, classed bodies). 8

For Marx, it was through the mechanisms of the state “that the proletariat came into being, transformed as producers from peasants to wage laborers.” 9 Borders and the centralized power of the nation-state that they (re)produce and reify, were key in enabling internal market “extension and consistence that the capitalist mode of production requires.” 10 In his iconic work Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson brought in the centrality of racialization to the work of state borders in (re)producing the kinds of social stratifications (racial, national, ethnic) required by capitalist relations of production and modes of exploitation. 11

In Foucauldian terms, the border functions as a form of “biopower” through which certain populations are “ma[de] to live”, through their inclusion in domains of knowledge, institutions and practices of the state that are organized to augment collective life and “make” particular populations flourish, while others, through the marshalling of racialized difference, are excluded and “le[t]” die. 12 Though a notion of biopower is useful for understanding the intersection between different forms of power in shaping stratified border experiences, Gilberto Rosas points to the conceptual limitations of biopower, “including a problematic genealogy” and “diffused conceptualization” of power. Rosas instead suggests “policeability” as a concept that captures breadth without losing sight of the particular state agents who exercise coercive power, including state and parastate security actors. 13

Borders also play an important ideational function in terms of the (re)construction of identities, contributing to the re-ordering of what Edward Said refers to as “imaginative geograph[ies].” 14  Many use the language of rupture to describe this process: communities, social fabrics, markets, modes of exchange, even families are torn, broken, ripped apart, made vulnerable to control, and to divide and rule strategies. The transformation of pre-existing spatial arrangements and social relations yields new realities, identities and subjectivities, pointing to the productive aspects of border violence and its function in (re)producing global racial capitalism in the metropole.

A closer look at border violence reveals its prominent role in managing and excluding the “disorder” of historically fluid identities, non-capitalist circuits of trade, anti- or de-colonial forms of political solidarity, and other affective relations both epistemologically and materially from a specific territory. In this sense, border violence architectures sustain racial capitalism not only insofar as the mechanisms of surveillance, walling, policing and militarization provide sustenance for the security/military-industrial complex, one of its main economic engines; they also contribute to generating profitable forms of precarious labor and vulnerable subjectivities. It is important here to remember the central role played in the 2010–11 revolution by Tunisia’s various precarious communities whose accumulated grievances derived in large part from the failure to find secure employment and livelihood in the context of a privatizing state.

Border control technologies and practices are central to the governance of these “surplus populations” whose potential to disrupt the flow of global capital must be constantly managed. Hamza Meddeb has highlighted the effects of a certain type of border violence entailed by the securitization of border communities and criminalization of cross border exchanges – “smuggling” – and their discursive conflation with terrorism. Describing these communities’ economic activity as one of several “survival strategies with a common thread of resistance to the forces of exclusion,” Meddeb explains how heavy-handed policing has contributed to the precariousness of informal labor in places where no alternatives exist. 15

Rosas develops this point, theorizing the role of border violence in producing labor vulnerability. Though his work addresses the geographies of U.S. empire, focusing on the United States-Mexico border, his conclusions are equally applicable in Tunisia and elsewhere in the global South where borders are increasingly organized and managed by and on behalf of U.S. imperial interests. For Rosas, the “grinding and grueling processes” of clandestine “border crossings via treacherous geographies…constitute a coercive inauguration” of the precarious worker into stratified modes of labor exploitation. 16

Six years after the revolution, Tunisian borders remain an important site of economic activity, generating income, mainly for youth, in the absence of alternative employment opportunities. A recent report by International Alert stressed that, “although viewed as an artificial obstacle by one person out of three,” the border economy forms part of an “essential survival strategy” and is viewed as a “financial resource for a large majority of the inhabitants (90.2 percent in Ben Guerdane, 89.6 percent in Dhehiba).” 17 However, if networks of local and cross-border solidarity once allowed residents to maintain some control over the border economy, that relative bargaining power now seems altered by the constructed chaos in Libya and the changing power structures of the border area.

Though at 1.3 percent formal trade between Maghrebi states constitutes a very low share of their total foreign trade (compared, for example, to 40 percent with Tunisia’s former colonizer, France), 18 cross-border circulations loom larger on Tunisia’s socio-economic horizons than econometric models allow. 19 That such exchanges do not figure in government policy making is reflective of the broader political malaise of the post-colonial state. Borders are both a symptom and cause of the failure of Maghrebi and African states to institutionalize the kinds of transnational solidarities that came out of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles and political projects of the ‘50s–’70s.

The Algerian government, flush with foreign currency reserves accumulated from the high oil price bonanza of the 2000s, contributed to undermining Maghrebi sovereignty by helping to reinforce the grip of international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the IMF on their policy choices. For example, instead of dealing directly with the elected Egyptian government, it contributed US$5 billion to IMF lending through the purchase of Special Drawing Rights in October 2012, of which US$4.8 billion was earmarked for a loan to Egypt a month later, which was disbursed only after the coup. 20

These kinds of political-economic imbrications in imperial structures go a long way in limiting the kinds of solidarity possible today. Not only do they perpetuate regional dependency on the global North, but they also limit the possibilities for alternative development models and reproduce existing inequality. One can imagine, for example, the spaces that may have opened for alternative post-revolution development models had the Tunisian state not been bound by high levels of indebtedness to international financial institutions and other imperial actors, or burgeoning trade deficits with (neo)colonial European “partners.” 21 Without a broader political project within which to valorize and frame these circulations, the current border narratives render Tunisia and the region more susceptible to imperial encroachment.

Border Violence and the Making of Modern Tunisia

Prior to the colonial encounter, fluidity and mobility characterized whatever territorial demarcations existed in the region. In the Tunisian context, Jean-Francois Martin observes that “in fact, no border in the sense we attribute to the term nowadays, had pre-existed colonization.” 22 Of course, not all pre-colonial border movements reflected more horizontal social relations, as demonstrated by Tunisia’s centuries-old slave trade, officially abolished by Ahmad Bey in 1846 though persisting unofficially for several subsequent decades. The dehumanization and violence entailed by the movement of West Africans as commodities to be bought and sold in the Tunisian slave market is a reminder that historicizing is not the same as idealizing the past, and that fluidity does not necessarily entail the absence of hierarchy. However, such a perspective does offer a way to think through the legacies of colonial power on structuring the racialized social, spatial and material hierarchies that persist in Tunisia until this day.

According to the Tunisian scholar Khansa Ben Tarjam, before the 1910 Franco-Ottoman accords, the Jeffara region, home to today’s Tunisia-Libya border, “did not correspond to a clear and defined demarcation, but rather a shifting zone.” 23 The establishment of these borders, she holds, was “not without consequences for local populations,” which were intertwined through commercial and family/tribal ties. 24 A fact also attested to by colonial archives that acknowledge the extensive socio-economic exchanges and family ties shared across what is now the Tunisia-Libya border. An intelligence note, labeled “secret,” dating from January 19, 1934, reads: “…There is no doubt that, across the Tripolitan [Libyan] frontiers, the relationship between the populations are permanent and familiar. Witnesses, whether Tripolitans or Tunisians, seem to be as comfortable in Zouara as in Ben Guerdane.” 25

The links between present-day Algeria and Tunisia were equally strong. In addition to cross-border tribal affiliations, there were copious intellectual exchanges between Tunis and Constantine, as well as extensive trading activities between communities along the Aures and southwest towns of Gafsa and Tozeur. Further north, the situation was similar. A letter dated July 16, 1914 from the Controleur Civil in Souk El Arba (northwestern Tunisia) to the French Résident Géneral in Tunis, referred to an expropriated piece of land earmarked for use in the construction of a new road as being constructed on a passage “formerly known as Route de Souk Ahras in Kef.” 26 The naming of a central road in Kef after a town in eastern Algeria is indicative of the degree of integration that had existed between the two towns, the frequency of exchanges between them, and the extent of shared imaginative geographies. The symbolism was not lost on the French who changed the name to “Rue du Marché” in an effort to erase these geographies, and by extension to restructure local imaginaries.

In 1881, under the pretext of maintaining order and subduing the “thieving” tribe of Kroumirs from the northwestern mountainous region and the inability of the Tunisian Bey to provide “security” along the Algerian-Tunisian border, the French, whose colonial rule was already well-established in Algeria, invaded the Beylicate of Tunis. With already well-established French business interests in Tunisia and increasing inter-imperial competition over land and markets with the British and Italians, the main aim of the establishment of the French Protectorate, Carmel Sammu contends, is “to be found in the economic situation of the third republic: the search for economic opportunities necessary for the development of French capitalism.” 27 Claims of banditry, “razzias” – cross border raids – and a generalized lawlessness would provide discursive sustenance for the expansion of French power eastwards, functioning to depoliticize and delegitimize mounting anti-colonial resistance.

Examples from Tunisian national archives demonstrate the ubiquitous presence of these justifications in official correspondence between different levels of French protectorate governance apparatuses, including intelligence officers, police prefectures, governors, and administrators in the metropole. Emblematic of the all-embracing French colonial bureaucracy, exchanges around border control, regulation of cross-border movement, and surveillance provide important insight into how racialized hierarchies are (re)produced through French administrative power. In one of these exchanges, from 1893, the Gouverneur Général of Algeria instructs the Résident Géneral in Tunis “to establish the identities of all southern Algerians travelling to Gabès and apply close surveillance on their movements,” as well as to signal the names of all indigénes “traveling without an authorization.” 28

The construction of such domains of knowledge and efforts at administrative and political control naturally produced resistance. Individuals, ideas, and arms continued to subvert and traverse different territorial jurisdictions. Obscure border towns were often refuges for dissidents. In an attempt to control such rebel movements, the French imposed a “military zone” around the Tunisia-Libya border, which remained in place until the country’s independence, and often outsourced their border control and surveillance to the Makhzen tribes as part of a colonial strategy of incorporation. 29 Mednine, the capital of the border region, was home to the Office of Indigenous Affairs responsible for the administration of the territories, with centers in the southeast Tunisian towns of Zarzis, Ben Guerdane, Tataouine, and Dhehibat.

Despite the best French efforts, resistance continued. Two examples in particular stand out, both of which were violently repressed: the armed uprising of 1881 led by Ali Ben Khalifa, and that of 1915–16, commanded by Khalifa Ibn Asker, “who mobilised the tribes of Jebel Nafusa in Libya and the Dhehibat, which were in turn crushed in blood.” As the International Alert report notes, “These episodes are still present in the collective memory of the inhabitants of the two cities,” 30 serving as sedimented reservoirs of resistance that inform the contemporary forms and content of struggle to both transnational and state power.

Colonial expansion in the early 20th century would further transform the nature of the border regions. Ottomans in Tripolitana, surrounded on all sides – the British in Egypt in the East, expansionist Italians in the North, and French pressure from the West – agreed in 1910 to sign the “Convention of Tripoli.” This agreement with France officially defined the border between Libya and Tunisia, in a way patently favorable to the French presence in Tunisia. Yet even official borders and increased surveillance could not prevent cross border movement and grassroots solidarity against the French colonial powers. So fierce was coordinated cross-border resistance that Tunisia’s west and south – including the cities of Kasserine, Gafsa, and Sidi Bouzid, which played a crucial role in Tunisia’s uprising – came to be described by colonial officials as the “Triangle of Death.” 31

Both the Italian and French colonial regimes attempted to control the tribal trade across the newly institutionalized border, with the Italians completely banning direct cross-border trade on the eve of World War I, for fear that the Tripolitanian markets were becoming dominated by Tunisian goods, and as a means to develop its own market network. Throughout the war, areas under Italian (now Allied) control were officially cut off from Tunisian caravans, yet unofficial “smuggling” continued. As Adrian Fozzard details: “As late as 1924 the Ghadames and the Djebel Nefousa received all its food from Tunisia.” 32 The flow of goods shifted from south to north after the war, this time with guns that had been supplied to Tripolitanian rebels by the Turkish and German governments making their way to Tunisia. The French colonial regime was so perturbed by this development that it set up extra patrols, empowering cheikhs to conduct border checks prompting government officials to call for the building of a border wall along the lines of what the Italians had built in Cyrenaica. 33

The French were similarly focused on the control of trade, as the colonial regime sought to establish new markets in Tatouine, Ben Guerdane, Matmata, and Dhibat, the military insisted that “transactions should take place at markets rather than in villages and campments scattered throughout” 34 the territory. Yet there was also a strategic value to militarizing the border zones, with Djerba, Gabes, and Zaris brought under military occupation to economically sanction rebellious tribes, “reasoning that with the markets closed the rebels would soon be starved into submission.” 35

The purpose of highlighting the colonial origins of borders is not to question the territorial legitimacy of post-colonial states vis-à-vis ahistorical and idealized accounts of their western, more “organically” formed counterparts. Essentialized discourses of the durability of “pre-modern” sectarian, religious, or tribal identities have themselves been instrumentalized to justify (neo)colonial interventions and other forms of encroachment. Instead, recognition of the colonial genealogies of all contemporary borders helps us understand the ways in which the social relations and forms of accumulations engendered by colonial-era institutions, technologies, and practices continue to structure geographies, as well as material and social relations today. In short, it facilitates our appreciation of the ways in which the coloniality of power relations in the global system continues to underwrite the “coloniality of being” 36 in the global South.

Tunisia’s Borders and the Transnational “Matrix of War”

In the decades leading up to the 2010–11 uprising, the Tunisian government’s border strategies borrowed much from colonial forms of governance. A laissez-faire approach enabled the emergence of clientelist networks, similar to the colonial outsourcing of border control to privileged tribes. It also facilitated the circulation of cheap goods, and contributed to making border communities more vulnerable to colonial-style policing and surveillance. Meddeb has described these mechanisms as an “inexpensive mode of governance.” 37 They ultimately enabled the state to shirk its responsibilities for redressing historical cleavages and geographic inequalities. 38 Indeed, after the ouster in 1969 of the socialist-leaning Minister for Planning and Finance, Ahmed Ben Salah, and the shift in government policy from “a producer-state to a regulator-state,” the post-colonial Tunisian state became increasingly, though never fully, aligned with global capitalist imperatives. 39 In the context of the “war on terror,” Ben Ali’s neoliberal global security orientation accelerated class differentiation and spatially distorted accumulation patterns. 40

The Tunisian uprising, in the name of social and economic justice, followed by similar mobilizations across the region, offered the possibility for profound transformations in the structure and distribution of the country’s natural resources, class relations, as well as political institutions. An important part of this process was the opening of a space for imagining and experiencing the border in different ways. Yet, and despite some important achievements of the revolution at the level of political freedoms, Tunisia’s globalized national security state has reinforced the structural inequalities accumulated from the colonial and post-colonial eras, and has attempted to exclude more radical visions of systemic transformation. Perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes of the revolution has been the role democratization has played in assisting the country’s increased integration in to the global capitalist economy.

The list of attacks that have paved the way for Tunisia’s further incorporation into the global neoliberal security architecture are now well-known. The 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy, political assassinations of two leftist-nationalist politicians, Chorki Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, attacks on military installations in the Chaambi Mountains, on foreign tourists at the national Bardo Museum and the Sousse beach resort, the Presidential Guard bus and, most recently, Ben Guerdane – all claimed by or attributed to some conglomeration of global jihadi elements, allegedly seeping in through the country’s porous eastern border. A look at the ever-expanding list of new spending, legislation, alliances and forms of cooperation reveals the geopolitics and political economy of Tunisia’s fast globalizing national security state.

The current government has adopted several measures that would reinforce existing geopolitical alliances and enhance economic, intelligence, and security cooperation. Many aspects of this cooperation are now statutory requirements, enshrined in Tunisia’s new anti-terror law. 41 Perhaps most significant has been Tunisia’s accession as a “major non-NATO ally of the US.” 42 Similar to other economic and security agreements with the EU, this is a characteristically unequal “partnership” that reinforces the global “color line” underpinning a racialized global system. It entails further training, intelligence sharing and research projects facilitating a growing national security dependence on the U.S. Department of Defense. Israel’s membership in this alliance, as well as its status as a central actor in the imperial security-industrial complex, will deepen already highly contested complicity with the colonial-settler state’s agenda in the region, as demonstrated with the 2016 assassination of the highly regarded Hamas engineer and drone expert in Sfax, recently determined by a Hamas tribunal in Gaza to have been carried out by the Mossad and suspected by Tunisian activists of facilitation by the Tunisian state, which undermines Tunisia’s longstanding unofficial anti-normalization stance. 43

Considering the widespread and profound support of Tunisians for the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle, evidenced most recently in protests across the country in reaction to the Trump decision to move the U.S. embassy to Al Quds, and the longstanding, organized resistance to Tunisia’s normalization of relations with the Zionist state, 44 it seems likely that this increased cooperation will continue to be covert in the near future.  Despite the best efforts of both internal and external actors, Tunisians’ continued solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is a demonstration of popular support for resisting colonial divisions and state-led efforts to exceptionalize and dis-embed the country from the Arab world. The Tunisian journalist and intellectual Ghassen Ben Khelifa has outlined the importance of the anti-normalization movement in Tunisia (comprised of youth activist, trade unionists, “progressive intellectuals,” and others) not only as symbolic to the Palestinian cause but also to the “daily struggle of our people against neoliberalism, colonization and domination in its various forms.” 45

Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to further incorporate Tunisia in its imperial “security” architecture continue apace. Between 2015 and 2106, military assistance to Tunisia increased by 200 percent, with a 350 percent increase compared to pre-revolution figures. As with other areas of U.S. foreign military aid to regional states, much of this money is earmarked for the purchase of U.S. military equipment, an indirect subsidy for the U.S. military-industrial complex. Since the revolution, Tunisia has received $459,470,266 in “security” aid from the U.S. government, with $86.4 million dispensed in 2017. In addition to the more established programs including the Foreign Military Financing, and funds for military education and training, in includes several more obscure mechanisms, such as the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund and Combating Terrorism Fellowship program, funded through the Defense Department budget, and the State Department’s Non-proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs. 46 There is also the Security Governance Initiative (SGI), a multi-country initiative that currently provides assistance to six African countries “to help address issues of governance within the security sector.” 47 Recent U.S. military purchases include 24 surplus-U.S. Army Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout and light attack helicopters “for counter-terrorism operations” as well as four UH-60M “uniquely modified aircraft in support of the Tunisian Ministry of National Defense.” 48

Following the June 2015 Sousse attacks, work began on the 250-kilometer border barrier that runs along the Libyan frontiers from Ras Jedir to Dehiba, entailing a system of fences, sand walls, trenches and moats and covering the portion of the border that is north of a vast closed military zone in Tunisia’s southern desert. Providing numerous investment opportunities to the burgeoning private security industry, the fortification of Tunisia’s border is presented by the government and its transnational security allies as necessary protection against the growing terrorist threat there. However, as Habib Ayeb has noted, for many living in Tunisia’s border communities, the border represents “the materialization of their social and spatial marginalization”- a dispossession at the periphery that enables accumulation in both “local” and “global” centers. 49

The state’s “organized abandonment” 50 of border regions has been met with both structured and everyday forms of resistance. The governorate of Kasserine was one of the central incubators of revolutionary mobilization, with dozens of activists killed by security forces in the lead up to Ben Ali’s ouster. The historical marginalization of this region, as reflected in its application for “region as victim” status with Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD), was further highlighted by popular mobilization in 2016. Beginning in January of the same year, protests against unemployment and socio-economic exclusion were originally prompted by the suicide of a young man, Ridha Yahyaoui, after his name had been removed from a list of potential recruits for a public sector job. 51 Solidarity quickly spread across the country, culminating in protests in the capital and a several months-long sit-in in front of the Ministry of Employment in Tunis. 

Kasserine has also been one of the key sites of a wave of protests that have engulfed the country in recent days, echoing the 1984 “Bread Intifada.” The immediate cause is passage of the IFI backed 2018 Finance Law, 52 further enabling capitalist expansion in the country and requiring, among other provisions, the rolling back of various subsidies and subsequent price rises. This at a time of already an intentionally devalued dinar, 53 high inflation, stagnant wages, and high levels of unemployment making life even more precarious for the working class and others deemed disposable by capital. The mobilization reflects longstanding grievances around structural inequality and exclusion that reached its apex in the 2010–11 uprising. Fech Nestannew (“What are we waiting for?”), the movement representing the country-wide protests, has called for, among other demands, a reduction in commodity prices, protection from privatization of state-owned enterprises, social coverage for the unemployed, and social housing provisions for the those on limited incomes. 54 Some of the protests have even marched towards the Algerian border raising Algerian flags in a symbolic act searching for cross-broader solidarity.

Despite the persistence of popular demands to refocus the material and institutional energy of the state on fulfilling revolutionary promises, the diversion of state resources towards retrenching the security state remains a dominant feature of the political landscape, with the
budget of the Ministry of Interior more than doubling since 2011. 55 The recent protests have been heavily repressed by the security state apparatuses with scores of activists arrested, tear gassed, and at least one protester killed.

Protests last year in the southern town of El Kamour, the site of several foreign owned oil and natural gas extraction sites demonstrated the continued use by the state of colonial-style militarization to manage dissent. A sit-in that began in March 2017, initially limited demands entailing increased community investment by the gas and oil companies as well as improved employment opportunities, transformed into more expansive claims in the aftermath of violent police repression. 56 Elements of the El Kamour social movement began demanding a nationalization of the country’s natural resources and a redistribution of the wealth accumulated through its exploitation. 57 The government attempted to delegitimize the leaders of the protest by linking them to terrorism. Declaring the broader Tataouine province a closed military zone, the state’s response to the El Kamour struggle reflects the spatial dimensions of Tunisia’s stratified national security state. In addition to increasingly militarized borders with Libya and Algeria, this includes a proliferation of internal borders in the country’s most marginalized southern and central regions such as El Kamour.

Today, restrictions are not only imposed on the “excessive” and “out-of-place” movements of (mostly young men) to other regional states including Syria, Libya, Algeria, and Iraq, but also increasingly within the country, through the seemingly arbitrary application of internal restrictions on “problematic populations.” These include checkpoints within and between marginalized urban and rural spaces, “S17” border control orders, and the establishment of military zones. 58 Individuals interpolated by internal borders become vulnerable not only to state violence but also to labor exploitation as their suspect position renders them unemployable in the formal economy.

Even when the structural and material violence of borders are acknowledged by analysts, very rarely are the entanglements of Tunisia’s post-uprising security state within U.S. empire are discussed. In recent reports on Tunisia’s borders for example, there has been almost no mention of the potential impact that newly proposed legislation permitting the deployment of foreign naval vessels, ground forces, and technicians on Tunisian soil as part of bilateral military cooperation with the U.S., may have on the country’s popular and state sovereignty and its ability to carve out an independent politico-economic path.

The role of European states in the militarization of Tunisia’s borders have been similarly under-examined or uncritically accepted on the basis of their benevolent claims. Following the Ben Guerdane attacks, then-Defense Minister Horchani announced that military engineers from the United States and Germany would work with the Tunisian government to install an advanced electronic surveillance system along Tunisia’s border with Libya. 59 A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense also confirmed that 20 military personnel from the U.K. were already in Tunisia for a training program which had begun in February and that the U.K. government was also providing “mobile patrolling and surveillance training in Tunisia” to the First Brigade of the Tunisian National Army. 60

The convoluted web of private and public actors, practices, and discourses that inhere in each border act recall Vivienne Jabri’s [transnational] “matrix of war” – “operating in the name of humanity” 61 – or Tarek Barkawi’s “‘thick’ social space traversed” by multiple and murky relations, including, over time, “armed forces of diverse type… subject to the command of diverse authorities, from joint-stock companies to the officials of a distant king-emperor.” 62 A constellation of actors, interests and discourses that would effectively deprive Tunisians of the power to take their fate in their own hands.

Recovering Transnationalism as Resistance to Border Imperialism

As a subservient partner in what Harsha Walia has described as “border imperialism,” Tunisia has been tasked with making the region “stable” for the free movement of European/Western capital, though not of (non-European/non-Western) human bodies. The EU’s ongoing attempts to externalize its border regime, requiring Tunisia not only to intercept but also to prosecute “crimes of clandestine emigration” 63 and more recently to facilitate the inherently violent repatriation of failed asylum seekers, has entailed a further reproduction of racialized hierarchies, not only vis-a-vis Europe, but within African borders themselves. Doing so has necessitated a further rupture of Tunisia’s relations with its southern neighbors and the broader African continent, as the country is expected to ventriloquize European violence in controlling the “excessive” movement of Libyans, West and East Africans fleeing the ravages of (neo)colonial violence and capitalism. Border imperialism entails “the violence of colonial displacements, capital circulations, labor stratifications in the global economy, and structural hierarchies of race, class, gender, ability, and citizenship status.” 64

Tunisia’s colonial legacies continue to structure its relationship with a U.S.- and European-dominated border imperialism, limiting the spaces available for alternative ways of imagining, practicing, and experiencing social, economic, and political relations with the broader African and West Asian region. Yet the possibility of radical transformation is never foreclosed, particularly in a country with such a recent past of revolutionary mobilization. The persistence of non-authorized circulations across Tunisia’s borders is a reminder of the inevitable incompleteness of governance. The very fact that state and international forms of violence have been mobilized to reinforce Tunisia’s borders at this particular moment in time, suggests, as Rosas has argued, “the fragility of established political relations in the borderlands.” 65

Fanon described the colonial landscape as a “compartmentalized” world within which “the dividing line [is] the border.” 66 Policy measures like increased state investment and establishing free trade zones on Tunisia’s Maghreb borders may alleviate some of the most acute degradations to emerge from this compartmentalization. Analysis of the historical origins of the region’s borders and the nature and function of underpinning violence is crucial to deconstructing colonial cartographies and to imagining and pursuing the kinds of decolonial (and necessarily anti-capitalist) political, economic and epistemological projects promised but never fully realized in the context of mid-20th century transnational solidarity. The spirit of such a project must of necessity be resuscitated, fine-tuned, and adapted to the new realities of the 21st century.

It is in the global South that Fanon predicated that humanity would find solutions to overcoming the violence, exploitation, alienation, dispossession, and degradation of all forms of life that imperialism /capitalism have entailed. Yet doing so would require that “we must invent, we must be pioneers,” 67 moving beyond the structures and systems of governance inherited from colonial rule. It is only through such a project that the Maghreb, the African continent, the global South, and the world more broadly might thereby break the shackles of coloniality and create the space necessary for building an alternative reality based on solidarity and equality.

It is therefore imperative that the kinds of social, economic, political, intellectual, and epistemological spaces created by such struggles as the Tunisian uprising and ongoing revolutionary mobilization in the country be fiercely defended against the onslaught of capitalist, (neo)colonial and imperialist forces that have closed ranks and mobilized colossal resources to crush them. Borders – how they are imagined, structured, and practiced – are central to this endeavor.


1 International Crisis Group, “Réforme et Stratégie Sécuritaire en Tunisie,” Rapport Moyen-Orient/Afrique du Nord, no. 161, July 23, 2015.
2 Ibid.
3 Josue David Cisneros, The Border Crossed Us: Rhetorics of Borders, Citizenship, and Latina/o Identity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013), 99.
4 Prisms,” The Delma Institute, 2017.
5 Mark Neocleous, “International Law as Primitive Accumulation; Or, the Secret of Systematic Colonization,” European Journal of International Law 23, no. 4 (2012): 941–62.
6 Darryl Li, “Hunting the ‘Out-of-Place Muslim’: A Strange Journey,” South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection, May 31, 2011.
7 Antony Anghie. Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
8 Hagar Kotef, Movement and the Ordering of Freedom: On Liberal Governances of Mobility (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
9 Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism (London: Zed Press, 1983), 58.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Michel Foucault, ‘‘Society Must be Defended’’: Lectures at the College de France, 1975–76 (New York: Picador, 2003), cited in Gilberto Rosas, “The Managed Violences of the Borderlands: Treacherous Geographies, Policeability, and the Politics of Race,” Latino Studies, no. 4 (2006): 401–18.
13 Rosas, “Managed Violences.”
14 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 54.
15 Hamza Meddeb, “Young People and Smuggling in the Kasserine Region of Tunisia,” International Alert, May 2016.
16 Rosas, “Managed Violences.”
17 Meddeb, “Young People and Smuggling.”
18 The Editors, “Maghreb Integration: Between Economic Complementarity and Political Rivalry,” Morocco World News, July 22, 2013.
19 Claire Brunel, “Maghreb Regional Integration,” in Maghreb Regional and Global Integration: A Dream to Be Fulfilled, eds. Gary C. Hufbauer and Claire Brunel (Washington, DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2008).
20 Hamza Hmmouchene and Brahim Rouabah, “The Political Economy of Regime Survival: Algeria in the Context of the African and Arab Uprisings,” Review of African Political Economy 43, no. 150 (2016): 668–680.
21 For extensive analysis of the role and impact of IFIs on Tunisia’s political-economy see the work of the Tunisian Observatory of Economy; and on the issue of Tunisia’s Debt, see Les Banques Tunisiennes, “OTE: Pour 2018, les dettes représenteront 22% des dépenses publiques, un niveau record, December 20, 2017.
22 Jean-Francois Martin. Histoire De La Tunisie Contemporaine: De Ferry a Bourguiba 1881- 1956. (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003), 77.
23 Khansa Ben Tarjam, “Tunisie-Libye: Une frontière qui derange,” Inkyfada, April 1, 2015.
24 Ibid.
25 Tunisian National Archives. Collection FPC, Section A, Dossier 0204, Document 212.
26 Tunisian National Archives. Collection FPC, Section E, Dossier 0338, Document 0025.
27 Carmel Sammut, L’imperialisme capitaliste francaise et le nationalisme tunisien: 1881–1914 (Paris: Publisud, 1983), 62.
28 Tunisian National Archives. Collection FPC, Section E, Dossier 0550, Document 0023.
29 Makhzen tribes constituted an integral part of the Beylical administrative structure. They were tasked with tax-collection and, in some cases, ensuring order amongst other less privileged tribes (known as Raïas tribes). This was the case particularly in the peripheral regions of the Regency.
30 Meddeb, “Young People and Smuggling.”
31 Prisms,” The Delma Institute.
32 Adrian Fozzard, “Tribesmen and The Colonial Encounter: Southern Tunisia During The French Protectorate 1882 to 1940” (PhD diss., Durham University, 1987), 85.
33 Ibid.
34 Ibid.
35 Ibid.
36 Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (2007): 240–70. Cited in: Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni. Coloniality of Power in Postcolonial Africa: Myths of Decolonization (Dakar: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, 2013), 125–34.
37 Hamza Meddeb, “Rente Frontalière et Injustice Sociale en Tunisie,” in L’Etat D’Injustice Au Maghreb: Maroc et Tunisie, eds. Irene Bono et al. (Paris: Karthala, 2015), 63–98.
38 Habib Ayeb, “Social and political geography of the Tunisian Revolution: The alfa grass revolution,” Review of African Political Economy 38, no. 129 (2011): 467–79.
39 Fadhel Kaboub, “The Making of the Tunisian Revolution,” Middle East Development Journal 5, no. 1 (2013): 1–21.
40 Corinna Mullin, “Tunisia’s Revolution and the Domestic–International Nexus,” in Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring, ed. Larbi Sadiki (London: Routledge, 2011).
41 See Dhouha Ben Youssef, “Terrorisme et TIC: Carte Blanche à Amar 404!Nawaat, August 25, 2015.
42 Corinna Mullin, “Tunisia’s ‘Transition’: Between Revolution and Globalized National Security,” Project on the Middle East and The Arab Spring, September 2015.
43 See Nada Trigui’s article on the recent assassination of Tunisian engineer and Hamas drone expert Mohamed Zouari in which she discusses the view that Tunisia has unofficially collaborated with Israel since at least the 1985 Israeli attack on the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) headquarters in Hammam Chott, “How murder of Hamas drone expert exposed Tunisian divide,” Middle East Eye, January 29, 2017.
44 Wafa Samoud, “Protestations contre la décision de Trump: L’ambassade des Etats-Unis à Tunis appelle ses ressortissants à la vigilance” HuffPostMaghreb, December 8, 2017.
45 Ibid.
46 See Security Assistance Monitor.
47 Stephen McInerney and Cole Bockenfeld, “The Federal Budget and Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2017: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East,” Project on Middle East Democracy, April 26, 2016.
48 See US Department of Defense, Contracts Press Operations, Release No: CR-187-16, September 28, 2016. See also Qualitative Military Edge, “Sikorsky Awarded $38 Million to Provide UH-60M Helicopters to Tunisia,” September 28, 2016.
49 Habib Ayeb, “Après Ben-Guerdane : dépossessions, déstructurations et insécurité alimentaire dans le Sud-est tunisien,” Jadaliyya, April 23, 2016.
50 Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
51 “Tunisia unemployment protests spread to capital,” Al Jazeera News, January 22, 2016.
52 Mustafa Jouili, Inhiyez, January 1, 2018.
53 L’Observatoire Tunisien de l’Economie (OTE), “L’impact négatif de la chute du dinar sur le déficit commercial,” Data Analysis, 2017.
54 Huffpost Tunisie, “Tunis, Gafsa, Thala, Sidi Bouzid…Les contestations sociales se multiplient,”  January 8, 2018.
55 Taieb Khouni, “Le budget du ministère de l’Intérieur a plus que doublé depuis 2011 selon le DCAF, voici les détails,” Huffpost Tunisie, January 4, 2018.
56 Walid Tlili, “I‘tissam al-Kammour yantaqil ila jihet ukhra fi al-janoub al-tounisi,” Alaraby, June 21, 2017.
57 Henda Chennaoui, “El Kamour: Resistance in the south radicalizes despite intimidation,” trans. Vanessa Szakal, Nawaat, May 15, 2017.
58 See the recent Amnesty International report, “‘We Want an End to the Fear’: Abuses under Tunisia’s State of Emergency,” 2017.
59 U.S., German Military Engineers to Arrive at Tunisia-Libya Border on Monday,”, March 6, 2016.
60 Ibid.
61 Vivienne Jabri, “War, Security and the Liberal State,” Security Dialogue 37, no. 1 (March 2006): 47–64.
62 Tarek Barkawi. “Decolonizing War,” European Journal of International Security 1, no. 2 (2016): 199–214.
63 EU-Tunisia Mobility Partnership: Externalisation policy in disguise,” press release, March 12, 2013.
64 Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism (Oakland: AK Press, 2013).
65 Rosas, “The Managed Violences.”
66 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 3.
67 Ibid., 239.

Authors of the article

spent five years living and working in Tunisia (2012–2017) as a Visiting Assistant Professor of International Political Economy/International Politics at the University of Tunis and is currently teaching in the Department of Political Science at John Jay College, CUNY. She is also a Research Associate at the London Middle East Institute, SOAS.

is a PhD student in Political Science at the City University of New York. His research focuses on Non-Western Political Theory with reference to Africa and West Asia.