As during French colonial rule, communities are ‘managed’ through authoritarian governance. The state’s presence and modes of operation have continued to centre on security, and primarily on deterring threats from the Libyan side, with minimal concern for public welfare. Those living in the south strongly identify in terms of their ties to their Libyan neighbours and as descendants of prestigious tribes separated only by borders drawn by the Italian colonialists. This shared identity contributes to a problematic relationship with the state. Local acceptance of the border is low, with one out of three respondents describing it as an artificial barrier. This is no surprise, given that the border – as a physical barrier between states – is a relatively recent phenomenon, with the first border post only set up in 1957. Yet, the significance of the border to communities’ livelihoods should not be underestimated, especially when the state narrative presents it mainly as a source of insecurity. The border is regarded as an economic resource by the vast majority of inhabitants (90.2 per cent in Ben Guerdane and 86.9 per cent in Dehiba). In the absence of state development, peripheral communities adopted their own survival strategies, with the border representing a key financial opportunity. Even today, for many young people the border is their main source of income and employment.
The significance of the border and the economy around it is linked to the opportunities available to communities in the borderlands. Economic issues are regarded as key to people’s marginalisation: 93 per cent of respondents in Dehiba and 80.9 per cent in Ben Guerdane viewed their economic situation as either ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. To break this down, the research looked at three indicators: modes of employment, education and the informal sector.
Job creation was identified as the main priority for most respondents and the labour market was a key aspect in the research. In both cities, unemployment exceeds the national average, with female unemployment reaching over three times the national rate. One in five respondents in Dheiba reported unstable working conditions. The erosion of waged labour is apparent in both cities, particularly for the current generation and in the traditional agricultural sector. Formal employment opportunities offered by local government and the army have long been the sole route to social advancement. This has resulted in patron–client relations between inhabitants and local authorities.
While illiteracy has more than halved in the two cities compared to the previous generation, school enrolment for young men aged between 19 and 24 years is half the national rate. The lack of interest in education is the main cause of school drop-outs in Ben Guerdane (61.8 per cent), while in Dheiba, financial difficulties were seen as the main cause (51.3 per cent). A recurring view was that schooling, and education in general, are neither engines for social mobility nor a means for securing a stable job, and cross-border trade is often the route to a livelihood after school.
The local economy, according to respondents, is more dependent on trade with Libya than on the economic policies of the Tunisian state, and informal trade is key to this picture. Yet, trade has a complicated relationship with border governance. During the Ben Ali era, informal cross-border trade was implicitly tolerated as a driver of national economic growth; in fact, the border economy was a channel for Tunisian integration into the global economy via its periphery. The profitability of the border economy also made it of interest to elites. The rampant corruption of the period inevitably reached the border economy of Ben Guerdane, and from the mid-1990s the influence of the Trabelsi family (the family of Ben Ali’s wife) grew stronger. However, more established local players, with their comparative advantages (historical precedence, geographical proximity with Libya and well-established cross- border family and tribal networks), were still able to secure their share of the income generated at the border.
In allowing the relatively free flow of trade across the border, the state also sought to assert control over these border regions. The Ben Ali regime believed that border trade would ease mounting societal pressure in the absence of economic development. While these arrangements were informal, the rules for local smugglers were clear: the government tolerated trade but forbade arms and drugs trafficking and expected assistance from the smugglers in countering these.
Yet, engagement in informal cross-border trade carries profound stigma for many ordinary people. The communities distinguish between two kinds of smuggler: the so-called ‘barons’, the wealthy chiefs who run the smuggling networks with little local endorsement; and the ‘good smugglers’, whose work benefits their communities by making goods affordable – selling textiles, clothing, electronics and basic food commodities – and who were involved in protecting Ben Guerdane from the jihadist threat in 2016, when, according to some inhabitants, smugglers helped to drive out the militants.