Anouar Boukhars is a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East program and an associate professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He is the author of Politics in Morocco: Executive Monarchy and Enlightened Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2010), co-editor of Perilous Desert: Sources of Saharan Insecurity (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013), and editor of Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms and Geopolitics (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He has published in a number of outlets, including the Journal of the Middle East and Africa, the Journal of Conflict Studies, African Security Review, International Political Science Review, European Security, and Orient. Diwan interviewed him at the end of July, to discuss his recently released Carnegie paper, “The Geographic Trajectory of Conflict and Militancy in Tunisia.”

Michael Young: You’ve just written a paper for Carnegie titled The Geographic Trajectory of Conflict and Militancy in Tunisia. What are your main conclusions?

Anouar Boukhars: Many youths in Tunisia’s marginalized border regions have lost confidence in the democratic transition that began after the uprising in 2010–2011 and have developed feelings of deep frustration, anger, and hostility towards state authority. This massive political disenchantment has been reflected in angry protests, street violence, and in some cases violent extremism. In response to ongoing social unrest and terrorism, the Tunisian government has developed hardline security policies, whose effects have often exacerbated social tensions, political violence, and militancy. The prolonged disconnect between the state and its marginalized regions is dangerous. It threatens to plunge the country into violence that could result in a slide back into repressive authoritarianism.

MY: What are the main characteristics of Tunisia’s border regions?

AB: Tunisia’s border regions are bedeviled by problems of extreme poverty, severe inequality, mass unemployment, and rising extremist activity. For example, the governorate of Tataouine in the southeast, which has become a flashpoint for protests against marginalization, has the highest number of unemployed graduates in the country—56 percent as of 2012. Despite the vastness of its territory, which accounts for some 25 percent of Tunisia’s area, and its oil fields, which account for 40 percent of Tunisian oil production, the region is held back by poor roads, hospitals, and schools.

This lack of adequate infrastructure has stifled economic activity and social services delivery, even in areas that have experienced significant industrialization. In the governorate of Gabès, for example, which lies along the southeastern coast and boasts one of the largest industrial zones in Tunisia, the rate of unemployment and illiteracy is much higher than the national average. Worse, in a region choked by industrial pollution and unsafe working conditions, the lack of access to hospitals and healthcare speaks volumes about the degree of marginalization experienced by local communities.

The same problems plague Tunisia’s western border. It is home to 30 percent of the country’s population, but also contains 55 percent of Tunisia’s poor. The governorate of Kasserine, which was thrust into the international spotlight in 2012 after its mountainous areas bordering Algeria became a hideout for Al-Qaeda-linked militants, best exemplifies the effects of the sharp inequalities and brutal asymmetries that separate Tunisia’s more developed northeastern coastal areas and its interior and western regions. The governorate, home to half a million people, has the worst socio-economic indicators in the country.

With poor infrastructure, dwindling populations, and less-qualified workers than the regions of Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast in the east, the border regions are naturally less attractive for investment. Bureaucratic hurdles and corruption also get in the way of development. Rising security threats only compound such difficulties by scaring away those who would potentially be willing to invest in those regions.

MY: Why is it that traditionally the border regions have been less developed than the cities of Tunisia’s coast?

AB: This sad state of affairs is due to a history of economic development skewed in favor of the northeastern littoral regions. Many in the border regions attribute this economic asymmetry to a deliberate policy of the coastal political and economic elite to punish their regions for their recalcitrance. The south and several regions in western Tunisia have a long history of opposition to central authorities dating back to the colonial era.

Tunisians who do not espouse extreme forms of cynicism about the state’s intentions, however, blame the regions’ economic strangulation on the neoliberal policies adopted by Tunisia’s first president after independence, Habib Bourguiba, rather than on any political vendetta against the periphery. Bourguiba’s promotion of export-led growth and tourism created serious economic and regional imbalances. Critical national infrastructure sectors were constructed essentially as enablers of economic growth in the capital and coastal regions of the east.

Major investments in transport infrastructure were aimed at connecting the urban centers in the east with the metropolitan area of Tunis where high value-added industries such as textile and tourism are concentrated. The preferential treatment of these areas contributed to flagrant regional divides. The coastal economic belt has become the lifeline of the Tunisian economy, contributing more than 85 percent of the country’s GDP. Fifty-six percent of the population and 92 percent of industrial firms are less than an hour’s drive away from the largest cities of Tunis, Sfax, and Sousse. The border regions, in contrast, were left to languish in poverty and underdevelopment.

MY: How does the marginalization of the border areas potentially threaten Tunisia?

AB: Social inequality and regional asymmetries are deepening the chasm between Tunisia’s restless periphery and its Mediterranean coast in the east, with the potential to undermine the country’s democratic transition. This distrust and antagonism hamper the fight against terrorism. Terrorism exacerbates underdevelopment and inequality while heavy-handed anti-terrorism approaches polarize communities and increase the growing disillusionment of Tunisia’s youth. For example, stepped-up surveillance along the border with Algeria and Libya has had a negative social impact on people whose livelihood depends on informal cross-border trade.

The disruption of the informal economy deepens people’s feelings of economic marginalization and social exclusion. This, in turn, breeds bitterness among locals who believe that the government’s security measures have come at the expense of their wellbeing. Many complain that they are caught in the crossfire between the security forces and terrorist groups. Furthermore, the escalation of artillery and airstrikes has rendered life difficult in several villages, at times destroying farms and agricultural areas. In the process there has been a growing backlash against a counterterrorism-first approach that has relegated economic development and job creation to the backburner.

In the absence of other options, the militarization of the borders and the asphyxiation of the informal economy have driven to the brink people who have historically relied on smuggling and contraband as sources of daily subsistence.

MY: What does your paper call for in the way of reforms for the marginalized regions of the interior?

AB: The government should officially recognize the border regions’ decades-long experiences of socio-economic discrimination and political abuse. It should develop an initiative to validate their historical figures, symbols, and contributions to Tunisia in history textbooks, statutes, memorials, and exhibitions. Tunisia’s historic narratives have been manipulated to downplay the border regions’ significance in the intellectual and resistance movement against French colonialism. This use of history and the coastal elite’s stigmatization of Tunisia’s border regions in the national discourse deepen the divide between an aggrieved periphery and a dominant Mediterranean coast.

The Tunisian authorities should also consider enacting positive discrimination policies that prioritize investment in social programs and public policy in the border regions. Programs that invest in the regions’ competitive strengths can have a direct impact on the livelihoods of local communities, helping to counter extremist recruitment. Such an effort requires the development of an inclusive agricultural plan that seeks the technological modernization of the sector through innovative financial mechanisms that channel resources to vocational education and training and land reform. The improvement in the management of natural resources and the investment of a fair portion of the profits from local resources into local projects is also key to addressing the needs and demands of the people.

The Tunisian government must also reform the internal security apparatus and criminal justice sector, and design rehabilitation and reintegration programs for the hundreds of Tunisian fighters returning from foreign theaters of conflict.

MY: Do you have any hope that the government will adopt such an approach?

AB: The problems in Tunisia’s border regions are real and are recognized by the Tunisian government. Unfortunately, the response of the successive post-revolutionary governments has been misguided and has failed to address the root causes of the problems in the marginalized regions, which are inherently political and socio-economic.

For the government to change its approach, there needs to be sustained bottom-up pressure that is combined with outside pressure. Tunisia’s international partners have a role to play in helping Tunisia establish a balance between security, liberty, and development. The United States, the European Union, and other donor countries and agencies should condition foreign assistance on the enactment of reforms that combat corruption and enhance transparency. They should also better direct their aid and resources to benefit the broader public and ease the dire social situation in Tunisia’s border regions. Aid that is not smartly programmed will reduce the incentives for the ruling coalition to adopt rule-of-law reforms and adequately protect civil liberties.

The United States and its allies should also prod the Tunisian government to seriously commit to reforming the internal security apparatus and criminal justice sector. They should also push to improve governance and empower both the National Authority for the Fight Against Corruption and the Truth and Dignity Commission. Reducing corruption, restoring justice, and controlling police abuse will help relieve mounting social pressure in the border regions.

The international community should also help the government to design and finance rehabilitation and reintegration programs for returning Tunisian fighters, which address the social and cultural context that enabled violent radicalization and recruitment into terrorist groups. This, combined with more effective efforts to narrow the socio-economic divide between the coastal regions and the hinterland, is Tunisia’s best bet for lasting and sustainable stability.