Essebsi’s election to the presidency in December 2014 prompted protests in the southern borderlands. The region had overwhelmingly supported incumbent Moncef Marzouki, who was seen as representing a break with the past. The two presidential candidates personified the regional division: Marzouki hailing from the south and Essebsi’s supporters found among the coastal elites.
Regional inequalities from the Ben Ali era endure. Fault lines created by unequal economic development under past regimes have hardened into political divisions, and now represent one of the biggest challenges to Tunisia’s political transition.
Ties That Bind Beyond Borders
The new Tunisian authorities were not the only ones to inherit the former regime’s neglect of borderland communities. In Libya, post-revolution leaders were faced with the daunting task of untangling the complex tribal rivalries created during Muammar Qaddafi’s rule.
Qaddafi tolerated, even encouraged, informal trade in black markets he referred to as “people’s markets”. He allowed communities to economically sustain themselves without burdening the central government while corrupt officials benefitted.
By sponsoring informal trade and favouring certain groups to the detriment of others, Qaddafi was able to manipulate the social and economic realities of borderlands. The resulting competition and animosity between neighbouring clans enabled Qaddafi to not only control border movements, but also profit from the trade.
An example of this loose form of governance is the Fezzan region, which covers most of Libya's south-west. Mainly consisting of desert, it is a difficult area to govern and has traditionally been ignored by the state. Impoverished communities in Fezzan have reaped little economic benefit from its vast oil and gas wealth, limiting employment opportunities to agriculture and large-scale smuggling operations.
Qaddafi kept order in the region through a network of state-sponsored groups that collapsed with his downfall. Underlying socio-economic disparities were then forced to the surface as Fezzan became a key battleground in Libya’s civil war.
Control over borderland regions, particularly in Fezzan, promised lucrative economic opportunities. Clans like the Zintanis, once intermediaries in a larger smuggling network, exploited the post-Qaddafi power vacuum to impose their control over parts of the Libyan-Tunisian border.
On the Ras Jdir border crossing between Libya and Tunisia, Amazigh clans from the city of Zuwarah – once suppressed by Qaddafi – took up arms against the Arab clans of Zintan to gain control of the border. Qaddafi’s suppression of Amazigh identity and cultural expression, including the Tamazight language, boomeranged to strengthen an Amazigh resistance movement, leading them to reassert control over their historical territories.
The Amazigh clans’ decision to join the anti-Qaddafi forces allowed these once-isolated communities in Libya to connect with fellow Amazigh in Tunisia, encouraging solidarity with kin across the border. A Libyan Amazigh ethnic awakening emerged through both armed empowerment and a budding narrative of transnational co-existence with Tunisian Amazigh. This was especially evident in 2011, when an estimated 1m people sought refuge in Tunisia, and Amazigh in Tunisia hosted their Libyan kinsmen who had fled across the border.
Already facing a precarious, albeit predictable, existence, marginalised borderland communities have thus borne the brunt of the forces unleashed since 2011. In Tunisia and Libya, especially, their way of life is under threat as armed smugglers, militias, and jihadists become more active and threaten their subsistence.
The regimes in Tunis and Tripoli controlled and influenced socio-economic conditions, and this has shaped present-day realities. Instead of merely being the backdrop to the borderlands narrative, the informal economy that sprouted in these “people’s markets” is, in fact, at the very heart of the story.