Borderland communities in the Maghreb have a history of deep distrust towards central authority. During the French colonial period, Tunisia’s west and south-west were known as the 'Triangle of Death', a centre of tribal armed opposition against the foreign power. The triangle comprised cities such as Kasserine, Gafsa, and Sidi Bouzid, which would later play a pivotal role in the uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in 2011.

In both Tunisia and Libya, borderland communities’ suspicion towards central authority has been perpetuated by post-independence political and socio-economic realities, and helped amplify dissent.

Muammar Qaddafi’s cult of personality looms large over Sirte in 2000, while the billboard imagery highlights his power to influence Libya’s south. Reza Fitriyanto/Corbis

Arising from historical grievances, the 2010-11 Tunisian and Libyan uprisings redefined the way people relate to the state and the borders that represent it. Long a space of contention, the region’s borderlands became an area of further upheaval during, and in the aftermath of, the uprisings. The aftershocks registered across the region through the erosion of state control, democratisation of the smuggling trade, and empowerment of militants.

Borderland communities are no strangers to instability. The emergence of modern borders in the early 20th century disrupted the traditional networks of allied clans and merchants. Historical trading routes from the Sahara subsequently became smuggling routes and merchant networks became trafficking cartels.

Post-colonial states followed a policy of buying stability by turning a blind eye to the informal economy. For example, in Tunisia, the Ben Ali regime established a clientelist system of officials, businessmen, and smuggling cartels that manipulated economic and political conditions for financial gain.

The disconnect between peripheral communities and state institutions was compounded further by uneven economic development focused on investment in urban areas far from the borderlands.

The closure of the Ras Jdir border in January 2013 angered many Ben Guerdane residents who rely on cross-border trade for a living in a region beset with unemployment. Reuters

For Tunisian regions suffering from government neglect, the state’s decision to lift food subsidies in the early 1980s created an additional layer of disillusionment. Already chafing against the authorities in Tunis, peripheral communities faced further economic strain due to a structural adjustment policy mandated by the IMF, which prompted then-Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba to reform the subsidy programmes.

As a result of the reforms, the price of basic items such as bread and cooking gas doubled. Coupled with existing economic hardships in southern peripheral regions, the price increases provoked outbreaks of violence. Rioters targeted symbols of the central government and the wealthy elite; police were attacked, and shops and administration buildings were looted and set ablaze.

The discontent of the unemployed unleashed during the Bread Riots, as they came to be known, put immense pressure on the government, and although the IMF and World Bank provided conditional loans, they failed to address the structural deficiencies and regional disparities in the economy.

As economic and social disparities festered in Tunisia, borderland communities became increasingly susceptible to anti-government rhetoric and radicalism. The January 2011 ousting of Ben Ali, who had replaced Bourguiba in 1987, was foreshadowed by a series of protest movements that raked through Tunisia’s rural areas, including the 'Triangle of Death'. The unrest moved through the Gafsa mining basin in 2008 and the border town of Ben Guerdane in the summer of 2010, finally reaching Kasserine and the agricultural areas around Sidi Bouzid in December 2010.

Originating in these marginalised areas, the movements were led predominantly by youth from the bottom of the economic ladder, battling widespread unemployment and often earning a living from the informal economy.

This socio-economic malaise is epitomised in the Jefara region, a borderland between Tunisia and Libya. The region, a sandplain speckled with marshes, is arbitrarily intersected by a border and hosts a population whose livelihood is dependent on cross-border trade. A self-sufficient confederation of Arab and Amazigh tribes, the Ouerghemma clan is native to the Tunisian border city of Ben Guerdane and the wider Jefara region dating back to at least the 17th century. In 1881, the clan went as far as to claim an independent republic in response to the French colonial presence.

A strong sense of independence can still be felt in Ben Guerdane today, partly bolstered by informal trade as a means of asserting autonomy from the central government.

The closure of the Ras Jdir border crossing with Libya provoked Ben Guerdane residents to protest in January 2013. Ben Guerdane played a pivotal role in the uprisings that unseated Ben Ali from power in 2011. Reuters

Isolated from Tunisia’s coastal cities, Ben Guerdane is equally remote culturally. Tunisian flags are a rarity and locals express a weak attachment to national identity. With scant career prospects, the youth are cynical about schooling, and many cut their education short in favour of the smuggling business. Dependent on informal trade for their livelihoods, these marginalised youths helped shape the movements that participated in the 2010-11 uprisings.

An Inherited Neglect

Since 2011, borderlands have played an important role in Tunisian politics. Successive governments have pursued a security-oriented approach towards the borderlands due to concerns that smugglers could become entangled in criminal networks and impoverished border regions could produce a new generation of militants.

While in power from 2011 to early 2014, the Islamist Ennahda party attempted to include religious conservatives and Salafist figures in its ranks. The party contended that secular oppression had led conservative populations in Tunisia to assert their religious identities through extreme means. This move, however, became the subject of intense debate when secular politicians Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid were assassinated. Ennahda’s decision was further scrutinised after an increase in militant attacks around Mount Chaambi, Tunisia’s highest mountain at the centre of a national park, which had become a hideout for jihadists. Faced with an increase in jihadist violence, the Tunisian state responded with more security measures, which ultimately further alienated the borderlands.

Many Tunisians blamed Ennahda’s lenient border security and ambivalence towards radical political expression for the increase in jihadist attacks.

Many Tunisians blamed Ennahda’s lenient border security and ambivalence towards radical political expression for the increase in jihadist attacks. In 2014, Tunisian voters elected the secularist Nidaa Tounes party to power. Although many former regime officials were members of Nidaa Tounes, its stringent approach towards Islamism helped it gain enough support to emerge victorious at the polls.

Yet, Ennahda continues to be popular in the borderland region, whereas Nidaa Tounes and its leader, Béji Caïd Essebsi, a former foreign minister who served under Ben Ali, are seen as the old regime in disguise.

The Tamazight language was illegal to teach under Qaddafi, but by July 2011 it had returned to classrooms as part of an Amazigh ethnic awakening that emerged during the uprisings against his rule. Anis Mili/Reuters

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.