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), 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, 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, 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, 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,” Tunisia-TN.com, 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.