Tunisia: “Geographies of Anger” and Fear for the Future

How does the authority control the "margin" through its mechanisms of repression and with the support of corrupted systems? The article addresses Tunisia as an example of a situation which repeats itself elsewhere.
2019-10-05

Fouad Ghorbali

Tunisian sociologist and researcher


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This publication has benefited from the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. This text may be reproduced in part or in full, provided the source is acknowledged.

Shanty towns and squatter areas have been expanding in Tunisia since the 1970s in spite of the government's desperate attempts to limit their expansion through housing policies, government subsidies, social housing, and the creation of the “Urban Rehabilitation and Renovation Agency”. The agency has worked for decades to integrate slums into their urban surroundings. However, its efforts have failed because it followed a technical tactic that completely disregarded the economic and social aspects of the issue, and adopted, instead, a security-oriented approach. After the 2011 events, the expansion of slums intensified when a part of the middle class found itself unable to afford decent formal housing and resorted to chaotic construction, which was the less expensive.

Things happen as follows: the poorest groups seize public lands which and use them to construct primitive houses. The state is forced to recognize these random settlements by connecting them to the water, electricity and sewage networks, under the pressure of the population that usually negotiates with the local authorities in order to become acknowledged. A strategy of “surveillance and punishment” prompts the state, primarily driven by its security concerns and desire to monitor these communities, to officially recognize the settlements. Many of the popular neighborhoods surrounding big cities had become a bastion of Islamists in the 1980s, and have recently become a stronghold of new jihadists. Fear and anger grows among the vulnerable youth in these geographical spaces that represent large and isolated social gaps.

The ties with official institutions are severed, and with the anger, fear and frustration that fill the slums, hostility becomes the norm. This is especially true of the relationship with the security establishment. The oppressive representative of the authority, with its decision to "expel the poor" into spaces of exclusion, creates "ghettos" that live on the margins of cities. Tunis, the most densely populated city in Tunisia, is characterized by the urban fragmentation and the spatial and social disparities between different groups and regions. The city itself reproduces the disparities that already exist nationally at the macro level between the interior and coastal areas of the country. Its most popular neighborhoods become "geographies of anger" in which the frustration is expressed through recurring violent protests. An example is the protests of January 2018, when many young people were expelled from public schools and found themselves on the far margins of the worlds of work and urban consumption, whereas in the globalized context, one’s self is usually asserted in an urban space by its ability to achieve access to consumption.

At a Distance

The people in the popular neighborhoods of Tunisia don’t live in contradiction with the lifestyles of the wealthy urban population but rather in a remote distance from it. Even though the social structures within the slums of Tunisia have their own inner contradictions and differences, their inhabitants (especially the young people) all share the same feeling of being “distant” from the others and especially from the so-called "bourgeoisie" of the urban centers and upper middle classes. The “distancing” is the primary and most important tangible experience of life in a popular neighborhood in Tunisia. For many young people, the stark contrast between their miserable living conditions and what is supposed to be "the standards of living in the city" brings them a suffering that only grows when they leave their neighborhoods for some reason and visit the fancy districts. They long to be like the others, living their lives in the consumerist society, and at the same time they dream of a conservative lifestyle that includes marriage and family. Traditional values are strongly present within popular neighborhoods, forming a moral system which defines individual behaviors and moral exchanges between residents. As for the "slum economies", these can be classified as "underground economies" or as part of the "black economy”.

These spaces are continuously subjected to security surveillance, starting with the security raids every Saturday evening that aim to identify those from the popular neighborhoods going to the city center. The inhabitants of the popular neighborhoods and slums view these practices as part of a deliberate process aiming at stigmatizing them and establishing their neighborhoods as "isolated ghettos" where they are treated as aliens to the city. Field research shows that the young people living in the slums around the capital rarely go to the Bourguiba Street (the main street in the city). Fearing the police, they prefer to remain introverted in their own neighborhoods which become their only vital space. However, many of the young men are known to hang around the city, taking public transportation for the purpose of pickpocketing, for example. They dislike the police that “tries to stop them from making a living”, as most of them depend on selling hashish, drugs and illicit smuggled alcohol. The young men also act as brokers for leasing apartments or mediators in the "sex trade" and practice other forms of self-management.

The middle class has become preoccupied with maintaining a certain stability for itself, after having believed in the 2011 revolution in its early stages and having been an active part in it. This middle class is not ready to lose more of its “old privileges” and is no longer willing to ally itself with the "marginalized", as happened in 14 January 2011. This is why the geographical and social gap grows wider in the major Tunisian cities.

The state is either silent toward or complicit in such practices, but it is quick to suppress them if they exceed the permissible limit. The diminishing "middle class" observes the recurring protests related to social issues with great suspicions. It has become preoccupied with maintaining a certain stability for itself, after having believed in the 2011 revolution in its early stages and having been an active part in it. This middle class is not ready to lose more of its “old privileges” and is no longer willing to ally itself with the "marginalized", as happened in 14 January 2011. This is why the geographical and social gap grows wider in the major Tunisian cities.

Popular Neighborhoods: Betting on “City Politics”

Before the revolution, the slums were rarely seriously discussed because of the powerful security grip on them under the ruling party's control. After the fall of the regime, the "urban margin" moved to the foreground of the events with repeated confrontations when “one of the guys from the neighborhood” is arrested for selling drugs or alcohol. Sometimes, the slums’ inhabitants express their solidarity with the "jihadists" killed in the terrorist confrontations that rock Tunisia. The sense of exclusion and isolation creates a common spatial identity for people living in the slums - especially the ones built illegally - where many feel like they are being "expelled from the state". We can even say that “counter cultures” are formed within these neighborhoods, such as the jihadist movements, small pickpocketing gangs, and the groups that run the “black economy”.

The post-revolution authorities are well aware of all this, but they refuse to loosen their security grip. They strike with violent blows, arrest people and forcefully suppress civil protests. However, the security grip goes far beyond, to an area which has to do with the political economy used to manage and control the urban margins. Grey areas exist which allow for negotiations between the "daily state" and those who live in the popular slums and are involved neck-deep in the illicit activities of the informal economy. The local authorities allow their engagement in illegal activities, like selling alcohol, opening brothels, trafficking in drugs and construction without permits, in exchange for small or substantial commissions and bribes that are proportionate with the income of the actors and their negotiation abilities. In this relationship, corruption becomes one of the tools of control and dominance, laying the rules of the game for everyone and setting binding limits. The “margin” is thus managed by these two mechanisms: security repression and the consolidation of corruption systems.

Islamists Get the Lion’s Share

The Islamists, who are the most pragmatic on the ground and the most permeating into the urban social fabric, understand that the margins are their "vital space". They started charities and opened Quran-teaching schools in these spaces, creating new patterns of clientele relationships that replaced those previously promoted and established by the ruling party for fifty years. The Islamists’ clientele system relies on a combination of religious factors, family ties, neighborliness, and social solidarity. They benefit greatly from the state's abandonment of its social obligations as it deals with repercussions of the demands of the International Monetary Fund. In fact, Islamists in Tunisia have supported this policy ever since they became part of the ruling class. As the social role of the state shrinks, bigger opportunities rise for their charity projects and preaching centers. At the core, this is all part of their political activity intended to make the slums’ inhabitants dependent on them, in order to exploit this dependence later in the elections season. The subsequent municipal elections proved this to be true.

The expansion of the phenomenon of parallel economy in marginal urban areas does not alarm the Islamists. In fact, the expansion is useful to them as much as it guarantees some sort of "economic integration" of their supporters of rural origins, who suffer from economic fragility. The speeches of the Imams in mosques of poor popular neighborhoods implicitly support the parallel economy, describing trade as "the Prophet's profession". In this particular field, religious, economic and political dynamics meet and intersect.

Jihadi movements have adopted the same means in the popular neighborhoods, supporting their presence within these spaces by offering charity to the people and focusing on informal economic activities that enabled many Salafi jihadists to attract solidarity toward them and create a zone independent from the state. The intersections between Islamists and Salafi Jihadism are clear in this regard. On the other hand, leftist movements are absent from the poor popular neighborhoods because of the common misconception which equates them with infidelity and atheism. This misconception is promoted, consolidated and exploited by the Islamic movements in the context of the ideological struggle with the left.

Still, the complications do not end with populist political movements, such as the Islamists. Ironically, and in parallel with the rise of the jihadist movements that worry the West, the international financing policies for the urban development projects in the slums are concerned with financing projects with a participatory approach that takes into account the views of the different components of the slums, in an attempt to create a comprehensive understanding of a given society.

Political Awareness and Access to Citizenship

According to the dominant political ideology in Tunisia, the popular neighborhoods are irregular unregulated areas that lack political awareness, which may explain the weak political involvement of their inhabitants, particularly the young people, in political action. But reality shows the opposite. The inhabitants of popular neighborhoods are politicized in a certain way, in what James Scott (author of "Hegemony and the Art of Resistance") calls “infrapolitics”, or what Jean-Franc̜ois Bayart calls the "quiet breach of the norms", where public places are seized and small bribes are offered to State agents in exchange for some benefits. The deeper this mentality of “evading the state" is rooted, the more established the relationship of permanent negotiation between the people and the local authorities becomes. Of course, this relationship sometimes turns into a hostile one and manifests through urban protests.

The slum dwellers demand no more than their “right to the city” and the access to citizenship. They simply wish to be “like everyone else”, and demonstrate this desire in their daily struggle to extract recognition, all while insisting on achieving this recognition through the creation of equal opportunities that ensure their equitable inclusion in the urban life. The "right to the city” that the inhabitants of the slums are trying to achieve through informal economies seems to be "a cry for help and sustenance by oppressed peoples in desperate times," according to the words of David Harvey.

The Center and the Margin: Complex Dynamics

It is difficult to address the parallel economy and the "margin economies" without linking them to the particular characteristics of the urbanization pattern in Tunisia. In its fast-spreading nature, this pattern resulted in uncontrollable phases of urbanization for many reasons, one of which is the fact that it was not accompanied by industrialization (unlike industrial countries). It was the result of the imbalance in development between the rural and the urban areas due to the forced modernization, both during and after the colonial period. After independence, the State adopted developmental and economic policies that neither created balance nor maintained justice between the different regions. It centralized all aggregate industries, tourist facilities, educational services (especially universities), health facilities and entertainment venues in the coastal areas. This centralization evidently had a significant demographic impact in Tunisia, having led to a mass migration in the 1960s from the impoverished rural inland areas to the cities, in search of work in the textile and footwear factories, manufacturing industries and tourism sector. The migrants of the subsequent two decades experienced minimal economic and social integration in the major urban spaces. They hence joined the social protest movement as they sought the values and lifestyles of the urban middle class.

Sometimes, the slums’ inhabitants express their solidarity with the "jihadists" killed in the terrorist confrontations that rock Tunisia. The sense of exclusion and isolation creates a common spatial identity for people living in the slums, especially in the ones built illegally, where many of the inhabitants feel like they are "expelled from the state".

The skewed integration of the national Tunisian economy into the globalized market enforced a fierce competition in the domestic industries that employ a part of the labor force. It obliged the State to undertake wide privatizations (cement factories are one example) and to gradually abandon its role in keeping the balance. The recession of industrialization resulted in the weak integration of the newcomers into the big cities. The second generation of migrants experienced life according to the neoliberal principle of “every man for his own”, especially in the context of the disintegration of contractual social safety nets (such as health systems and employment security) and traditional ones (as the rise of non-institutionalization destroyed kinship-based solidarity). In the meantime, the middle class (mainly consisting of government employees) shrunk and decayed, until it found itself physically and symbolically closer to the poor.

These transformations materialized in the development of the main urban spaces in Tunisia in two contrasting modes. In the capital, luxurious neighborhoods expanded simultaneously with the expansion of informal housing, whose inhabitants actively seek integration in their own way, through practicing their profitable informal activities. The State has been both silent and strategically complicit in these practices, but its silence is a “fragile” one which quickly turns into a loud repression whenever the government feels the need to remind the people of the “limits” of its overlooking over the informal economic activities. The limits are usually determined by the "powerful actors" in the structured economy who push the government to act to protect their interests, using the Union of Industry and Trade, which represents employers and merchants. For example, the Carthage Agreement, under which the current government was formed, headed by Yusuf El Shahed, included a clause about combating smuggling and parallel trade.

However, investigative media reports often find that parallel trade is not exclusively practiced by the “poor and the destitute”. The main smuggling routes are not limited to the tough border passages between Tunisia and Algeria or Libya. There are also the seaports which are under customs control, the most important one being the Port of Rades; the largest commercial port south of the capital and the main gateway to the export and import trade movements. Many goods are smuggled through this port with the complicity of agents from the customs control. Such correlation between smuggling and corruption was frequent under the Ben Ali regime and the link was not severed after the revolution. During a visit to the port of Rades, the Prime Minister commented before the staff that “the family of Ben Ali is gone but the corruption systems in the port have remained”. In fact, the number of influential traders who make use of the corruption to smuggle non-conforming goods has increased. Meanwhile, their non-conforming goods are promoted and sold mostly in popular markets, targeting the poor and middle classes who usually look for lower prices.

The wealthy Tunisians after the revolution do not originally come from “poor classes”. They were part of powerful groups and lobbies that were previously beneficiaries of the former regime. They were able to expand their circles of influence after the fall of the Ben Ali family which previously monopolized all illicit activities and privileges!

El- Qassrine: Smuggling and the Border Economy

El-Qassrine has been the symbolic capital of the “great grievances” and “betrayed revolutions”, starting from Ali Ben Ghazhahom, who, in 1864, led an uprising against the rule of the Beys and their tax system, and up until the “14th Janvier Revolution” (January, 2011) that overthrew the Ben Ali regime.

The uprising of Ali Ben Ghazhahom was a rebellion led by the “Siba Tribes”(*) against the so-called “stock authority”, i.e. against the authority of the Beys who had increased taxes to cover for their mismanagement of the country. El-Qassrine revolutions recurred at different instances of Tunisia’s modern history. The most violent of these revolutions was “the bread revolution" in 1984, followed by the 2011 revolution, which was ignited by Bouazizi setting himself on fire in front of the headquarters of the "Sidi Bouzid” governorate.

The majority of the martyrs of the "January 14th Revolution” were from El-Qassrine. The revolution’s demands concerned development and requested ending the so -called "crescent of poverty", geographically formed by the four main governorates (El-Qassrine, Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan and Gafsa). The demand still echoes in the inland areas, restated by the people in every protest after the revolution, especially in El-Qassrine, which has its very own history of social protests, due to its intensive involvement in the social movements.

El-Qassrine assumes one of the lowest ranks on the human development index at the national level. Official figures indicate that the internet connection to homes and schools reaches only 3 percent compared to 15 percent in Tunis. There are 0.4 doctors per one-thousand inhabitants and the illiteracy rate is extremely high, reaching 32 percent compared to 12 percent in Tunis. The school dropout rate is around 4 percent compared to only 0.1 percent in Ben Arous province. Potable water distribution and connection to the network is the lowest nationally - 50 percent compared to a 90 percent rate in the capital city, Tunis.

The governorate of El-Qassrine is located in western central Tunisia in the high steppes. It has the highest mountain peak in the country, "Mount Cha’anbi". Once the stronghold of the “Falaqa” who resisted the French colonials, the mountain in the recent years has become a closed military zone after "jihadists" positioned themselves in it.

The reality of the province seems bleak, and many consider it a “disaster-stricken region”. The governorate of El-Qassrine, with a population of 412,278 people (according to 2004 statistics), is located in western central Tunisia in the high steppes. It is known for its very cold weather in winter and extremely hot summers and has the highest mountain peak in the country, " Mount Ash-Sha'nabi ". Once the stronghold of the “Falaqa” who resisted the French colonials, in the recent years, it has become a closed military zone after "jihadists" stationed themselves in the mountain. In these conditions, El-Qassrine becomes the image of an "abandoned Tunisia". Reciprocally, it turns its back on the central State while investing in its most vital resource: the border. The province's location on the western border with Algeria allows its residents to work in the “border trade”, known as “smuggling”. Their activities include smuggling goods in both directions. The geographic characteristics of the border lands facilitate their job, as this “fragile border” is comprised of flatlands and steppes.

Making a Living Across the Border

The border in El-Qasserine does not merely represent a "transit zone" or a separator between two countries. Many residents of the adjacent areas see the border line as their final salvation in light of the State’s deliberate negligence both before and after the revolution. To them, the border is a lucrative economic resource that compensates for the absence of governmental development projects. Smuggling becomes an act of the social and personal daily resistance, driven by the need to make a living in a place where the unemployment rate exceeds 40 percent.

The border trade accommodates everyone. For the unemployed who dropped out from the public schools at a young age and for the jobless college graduates, smuggling represents a profitable solution. Some employees of public institutions who are unable to meet their needs relying on their salaries are also involved in smuggling activities. Smuggling, often referred to as “Contra” in the local expression, includes all kinds of goods, such as car wheels, fine wine, clothing, perfume, etc. The top smuggled commodity from Algeria into Tunisia is gasoline due to its price difference between the two countries, and it is sometimes sold in the open on the streets. Gas distributors continually press the government to firmly control the smugglers, and sometimes the government complies with their demands. According to World Bank figures, there are 3,000 cars per day that cross the Tunisian-Algerian border for smuggling, 60 percent of which smuggle petrol. According to the same source, a quarter of the gasoline sold and used in Tunisia is smuggled petrol.

It's not Easy to be a Smuggler

Being a smuggler on the Algerian-Tunisian border is not easy. It requires a readiness to do a dance between life and death, accepting the most dangerous of risks, including the overturning of a four-wheel drive vehicle, imprisonment, the explosion of gasoline loaded cars, or the confiscation of smuggled goods by customs and security patrols that monitor the routes. Smuggling in Tunisia seems to be a “skill” and its secrets must be learned. To begin with, it requires a relatively small capital for buying a four-wheel drive vehicle that can cruise through the rough landscape of the region. Three to five thousand dollars are paid in advance to financial leasing companies, which are banking institutions that "rent equipment, hardware or real estates for professional, commercial, industrial, agricultural and service activities."

These companies take the risk with smugglers by offering them the four-wheel-drive vehicles, but they would reclaim these vehicles if, for any reason, the "smuggling project” fails. Thus, the smugglers’ worries and fears are doubled; they worry about the authorities who may confiscate the cars and, about the possibility of failing to meet the financial obligations they have to the leasing company, which amount to about 25 thousand dollars for the rented car, with a monthly payment of 300 dollars for its rent.

It is a world of uncertainty where the unexpected might happen. That is why it is necessary to know the sub-routes to evade security patrols. These routes are usually well-memorized by the smugglers who are from the region, while those who come from other regions often cooperate with an “indigenous” member to help them on the road. The smugglers also use the method of “the searchlight”, by which a person drives a car first to monitor their pathway and inform the other vehicles about any patrols (usually there are joint security and customs guards patrols). The correspondence between the searchlight and the smuggler must always be optimal, as smuggling is not an individual’s game to be practiced by isolated persons but a coherent networked activity in which interests and profits are shared (even with the financial leasing companies, which are key players in smuggling). Smugglers build extensive relational networks with some security and customs officers who are often willing to protect the smugglers’ interests in exchange for payment. The relationship with the State is problematic and ambiguous in this sense, for the State is well aware that it is unable to provide employment under its inequitable developmental pattern, as it is aware that its security fleet is unable to effectively monitor smuggling. A space of "tolerance" is consequently negotiated.

The key word here is “negotiation”. To the smugglers and the security authorities, “negotiation” means that everyone must have their share of the gains. Many smugglers who transport goods from El-Qassrine border to coastal cities or to the capital admit that they “buy their way” there, meaning that they cross the surveillance patrols safely through paying bribes. The cost of delivering the goods may thus be high. The central authority in the capital is well-aware of this issue but also realizes that smuggling is a way for the marginalized to make their income. Every time the State attempts to tighten its grip, things get out of hand and these regions turn into “geographies of anger”. Often (and mainly after the revolution), El-Qassrine was the starting point of the protests, as in the Januaries of 2017 and 2018. The authority claims the protest organizers are smugglers, which may be relatively true. However, the tragedy of El-Qasserine further worsened after the anti-smuggling rhetoric focused less on preserving the national economy and more on linking smuggling to terrorism.

Smuggling and Terrorism

The authorities realize that the relationship between smuggling and terrorism is not really dialectical. Geographic, socioeconomic factors and circumstances created intersections between the two worlds. The security blockade against smugglers incited by groups with powerful interests has created a sense of great frustration among many young people who engage in the smuggling trade to survive. Many believe that the public authorities want to confiscate their only - albeit illegal - source of livelihood under the slogan of "resisting terrorism." It is true that global jihadist groups have lured in many young slum dwellers from El-Qassrine into their networks, but the automatic link between terrorism and smuggling only does more harm and causes further injustice and exclusion to the residents of the marginalized province. Their profits are shrinking by the day due to strict security surveillance on Mount Ash-Sha'nabi and the adjacent mountains , - like Mount Samama - all of which are located in the province of El-Qassrine.

There are indicators that repressing the smuggling activities might be indirectly beneficial for the jihadists, as it intensifies poverty and leads to further scarcity of economic resources in the region, triggering many smugglers to abandon their trade and join the terrorists. The terrorist groups based in Mount Ash-Sha'nabi relied on their expert knowledge in the geography of the area and their ability to camouflage to smuggle weapons and supplies and carry out terrorist attacks.

It can be concluded that restricting smuggling does not necessarily equate fighting terrorism. There are many particular economic reasons why smuggling exists, but the desire of taking revenge on the existing political, economic and security systems are also to be taken into account.

The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.

Translated from Arabic by Sabah Jalloul
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 07/05/2018

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(*) The term "Siba" (the abandoned) refers to a space or region which lacked government institutions and control. The tribes of the Siba lands did not pay taxes.

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