The eastern regions of Algeria have long been marginalized. From 2000 onwards the authorities engaged in what they called a National Spatial Plan to reduce regional disparities and create a greater balance between urban and rural areas. Despite such efforts, and others since independence in 1962, severe imbalances remain. No plan has lived up to expectations or prevented a feeling of exclusion in border areas. In many towns on the road from Algiers to M’Daourouche, those with whom I spoke complained about sharp disparities between the large prosperous cities of Algeria’s north and the rest of the country.
M’Daourouch, a municipality that reflects well the conditions in the eastern regions near the border with Tunisia, is located 580 kilometers from Algiers and less than 100 kilometers from the border. The municipal area is some 168 square kilometers and contains approximately 60,000 residents. Despite the presence of agricultural activity, agriculture is limited by the nature of the soil and climatic conditions. As for the Roman and Byzantine ruins in the region, they are underexploited because of Algeria’s stagnant tourism industry.
Algeria’s geographical division is uncommon. The country is divided between the coastal north and a high plateau just to the south of that stretching to the Sahara. The country has 48 provinces, or wilayas, most situated in the north and containing more than 70 percent of the population. Economic activities are mainly concentrated there, so that the regional disparities are quite visible.
They are especially visible on the drive from Algiers to M’Daourouche, which takes almost eight hours. The further one drives from the capital, the lower the quality of infrastructure, such as highways, roads, public toilets, and hotels, and the more visible the socioeconomic challenges the population faces.
Even within the eastern areas, the disparities can be glaring. Urban centers such as Souk Ahras or ‘Annaba are more developed, while rural areas such as M’Daourouche often lack basic services such running water. The authorities have built housing projects and people have either been relocated to these projects or have been given financial aid to build their own homes.
Work is hard to find in the region. The Roman and Byzantine ruins that are present could have been the pillar of a local tourism industry, creating jobs. Instead, today they lie abandoned and have been plundered, to the indifference of the local authorities. While there are a few Tunisians tourists who cross the border to visit the ruins, there are no facilities to host them. This unresponsiveness to the potential benefits of tourism has been reflected in Algeria’s tourism revenues, which are insignificant compared to those of Tunisia. In 2017, according to the latest available data, Algeria’s revenues from tourism reached $172 million, against $1.1 billion for Tunisia.
Except for a dilapidated sign, there is nothing to indicate that M’Daourouche is the site of a venerable ancient city where Saint Augustine of Hippo studied for fifteen years and where the philosopher Apuleius Madaurensis was born. Apuleius was the author, during the second century AD, of the first magical realist novel in history, the The Golden Ass.
I bought a ticket for the site, entered, and took pictures, though there was no map or guide for my visit. The guard, who from my accent understood that I came from the capital, was dismissive and gave me little information. However, he insisted that security was tight and that there was no more looting, without giving any further explanations about the new security measures.
Some people informed me of the presence of youngsters who discreetly sold archeological artifacts and old coins to the few tourists present. People in the region are uninterested in the ruins and many know nothing about the history of Apuleius. There are no school trips organized to the site, which in antiquity hosted the second university in North Africa after the one in Carthage, nor any mention of the history of the ancient city in school manuals.
The absence of job opportunities has led many people in M’Daourouche to engage in smuggling across the Algerian-Tunisian border. For instance, in Al-Ouenza, a town situated 50 kilometers to the east of M’Daourouche, a majority of youths are involved in smuggling. Other border areas, such as Tebessa, Bir al-‘Ater, Safsaf al-Ouesra, and Um ‘Ali are also known to be smuggling regions.
Al-Ouenza is well known for its iron mine, which feeds the large steel plant of ArcelorMittal located in ‘Annaba. However, the plant hardly hires anyone from the region, and when there are openings it is for contractual work for which one is paid around $175 a month. Therefore, individuals are pushed to engage in parallel activities. Most of the time, these are young people looking for a way to make a living and take care of their families. Sometimes they are employees, including civil servants, trying to supplement their low wages.
When I reached the border crossing with Tunisia that was closest to M’Daourouche, the customs officer there told me a very different story. While complaining about his working conditions and long hours, he insisted that the border had been tightly sealed and better protected since the Arab uprisings in 2011. Smuggling activity was a thing of the past, he insisted.
A majority of the smugglers and residents of the border area with whom I spoke confirmed the opposite. The strategies of smugglers are more sophisticated today than before and take place in the mountains and by night. For many residents of M’Daourouche and its surrounding areas, the central government is an entity that restricts their daily practices and mobility. Breaking the law, or circumventing it, is necessary for them because laws are viewed as interfering with their economic interests and their way of life. And it’s a life, on Algeria’s impoverished periphery, that remains very difficult indeed.