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 Dispossession, Recomposition and Resistance: A Local View from the Borders (Tunisia) 

Olfa Lamloum


Based on long-term field research and action begun in 2014, my presentation explores the dynamics currently under way in Tunisia ten years after the revolution, from the perspective of Kasserine, a province on the margin of west-central Tunisia. By “margin” I mean a territory in the crucible of the long history of “accumulation by dispossession” which structures the relationship of the central Tunisian state with its periphery.

I argue that this neglected border province, the second site of the Tunisian revolution, with its 200 kilometers of frontier with Algeria, provides a relevant and decentered perspective to gauge the resilience of the authoritarian neoliberal order in Tunisia. I contend that this resilience is based on two levers with transnational dynamics.

The first is the “War on Terror” launched in Kasserine from 2012-2013 against the Tunisian branch of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) at Jebel Chaambi in the east of the province. The counter-terrorist agenda, strongly backed by Tunisia’s principal western donors, eclipses the social question and legitimizes a security crackdown in Kasserine. The extension of military zones and the strengthening of control over the border and the population help criminalize the youth of the margins and their protest movements.

The second lever is the economy of the border region, which since the 1990s witnessed an upsurge in cross-border flows. The reorganization from 2013 of smuggling in its three categories – for daily necessities, profitable items, and illicit contraband – revived old social hierarchies. In particular, it made the survival smuggling practiced by young people excluded from the job market even more risky and precarious. It benefitted lucrative smuggling, structured and hierarchical, mobilizing transnational supply networks controlled by powerful entrepreneurs. As for the smuggling of illegal substances (hashish and especially synthetic drugs), which was marginal before the revolution, it flourished after the revolution, leading to an increase both in the supply of narcotics on the local and national scenes and at the same time in consumption offences among the young people of the popular classes. Altogether, the border economy, freed from Ben Ali’s control, benefitted the minority most connected to international networks eager to reinvest their profits at the Centre. It favored the emergence on the local and national political stages of businessmen of dubious wealth who enjoyed a local territorial clientelist base.

In conclusion, I maintain that ten years after the revolution, Kasserine’s retention as a margin, a lowly link in the global neoliberal order, demonstrates the dual dynamics of that order: excluding the people but taking control of their territory, imposing security but permitting or even inciting the informal, the illicit and the criminal.

Olfa Lamloum is Tunisia Country Director for the NGO International Alert. A political scientist, she has led several studies on the issues of marginalization in post-2011, especially in border areas and Great-Tunis and co-directed two documentaries, Voices From Kasserine (2017) and Feeling What’s Going On (2020). She is a former researcher at the French Middle East Institute (IFPO) in Beirut.