Kasserine, a long history of marginality and resistance

In Kasserine, governorate of half a million inhabitants of west-central Tunisia, with a border of more than 200 kilometers with Algeria, the 2011 revolution is the heir of a long history of protests overshadowed through the official national narrative. The peasant revolt of 1864 against the beylical power, the 1906 insurrection in Thala against French agrarian colonization, the support of the fellaghas for the Algerian armed struggle in the 1950s are all insurrectional moments present in the collective memory. An oral repertoire of popular songs and poems celebrates the resistance of local tribes and maintains the painful memory of the repression and dispossession of the insurgents.

Part of Sidi Bouzid, the 2011 revolution spread quickly in Kasserine and revived this mobilizing imagination. The scale of the dispute is blowing panic over the regime of Zine el-Abidine ben Ali (1987-2011). It forced the police and the special riot forces to withdraw from the main cities not without causing the greatest number of martyrs in the whole country. In the process, border posts are deserted, municipal councils and cells of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD, ruling party) disappear and the caciques of the regime are buried. Ben Ali suffered his first defeat. The revolution wrested this relegated and stigmatized governorate for five decades from its invisibility.

The outbreak of the revolution created a power vacuum in Kasserine. For several weeks, neighborhood committees led by young people, an embryonic form of popular self-management, were created. It’s time for all possibilities. The insurgency movement expresses a strong demand for social and territorial justice which is crystallized in two unifying demands: the development of the region and the right to employment. Al-Tahmich (marginalization) stands out as a legitimate cognitive category in public space to say the socio-spatial divide between the interior and the coastline, created by the postcolonial state. In 2014, the new Constitution echoes this. It lays down the principle of positive discrimination of interior territories. In 2015, the Truth and Dignity Unit took up the case of Kasserine “victim region” in the context of transitional justice.

Marginalization as a social destiny and territorial divide

Yet Kasserine offers a clear illustration of the inability of the Tunisian “democratic transition” to reduce the territorial divide. It shows the alienation from the quest for social citizenship, stifled by a reconfiguration of power tied to the compromise between old and new political elites.

Today as yesterday, official statistical indicators and sociological studies attest to the persistence of social inequalities and territorial asymmetries that hit Kasserine in terms of access to resources and public services. The region still has one of the highest dropout rates, the poverty rate is twice the national average and the regional development index is one of the lowest in the country. From one generation to the next, the majority of the workforce continues to work in low-paid and often precarious jobs. The springs of this relegation are based on two tangled processes of impoverishment which have had repercussions on the contemporary social history of Kasserine, but also on that of the whole interior.

First there is the impoverishment of the small peasantry. Begun by the French colonial conquest, it was perpetuated in the aftermath of independence (1956), for lack of a democratic agrarian reform guaranteeing the poor peasantry’s access to land, water and credit. From the 1970s, it accelerated with policies of economic liberalization and caps on agricultural prices at low levels. Added to this is the scarcity of alfa in the governorate: the decline of this perennial plant species growing in arid areas and used in papermaking, the main source of income for poor farmers until the 1990s, worsens the living conditions of the latter.

Then, the impoverishment of youth. This phenomenon is the result of long-term unemployment which has continued to grow at the rate of structural adjustment programs and austerity policies. This unemployment conceals two notable facts in the governorate. The first is the erosion of industrial wages, a consequence of the near-bankruptcy of the National Cellulose and Alfa Paper Company (SNCPA), the public enterprise which used to be the main provider of jobs in Kasserine, and the great absence of companies . The second relates to the rise in unemployment among young graduates, which became from the 2000s a massive social fact reflecting the “breakdown” of school as a social elevator, and the end of professional integration through employment. public for new graduates. Unemployment and precariousness thus overwhelm an entire generation from the working classes, creating in them a deep feeling of abandonment.

It is in the working-class districts of Nour, Karma and Zouhour, the product of a blend of several waves of rural exodus from the surrounding countryside, that these two impoverishment processes crystallize. These neighborhoods house, on the one hand, the generation of fathers uprooted from their rural world, former agricultural workers or poor peasants, mostly poorly educated, and, on the other hand, that of their children, endowed with a certain educational background, but often without the prospect of social mobility. Faced with this relegation, many residents of the governorate had no choice but to resort to smuggling.

The metamorphoses of the border economy

Imposed by France in 1902, the Tunisian-Algerian border is a recent colonial construction which was deployed by separating and dispossessing from their lands the families and tribes living on both sides of the route. Deemed porous during the Algerian war (1954−1962), it was reinforced by French “armed defense lines” in order to cut the maquis of the National Liberation Army from their rear base in Tunisia. In 1970, the two independent countries finally agreed on the definitive demarcation of the dyad. Today, of the nine border crossings between Tunisia and Algeria, two are located in the governorate of Kasserine, a few dozen kilometers from the Algerian city of Tébessa.

This dyad never prevented family ties, mixed marriages and economic and commercial exchanges between populations. However, in the 1980s, as the economic crisis worsened and the living conditions of the inhabitants deteriorated, the border asserted itself as the only resource capable of ensuring the material survival of the underprivileged and excluded from the population. labor market. We then started to cross it to get cheaper basic necessities in Algeria or to bring back fuel in order to resell it, by taking discreet paths or hoping for the indulgence of the security services at the border posts of Bouchabka and of Haidra. From the 1990s, the border economy was transformed and gradually changed in scale. Small local “food” smuggling, localized, poorly organized and carried by family ties, is overwhelmed by a new, more juicy, structured and hierarchical smuggling, mobilizing transnational supply circuits as well as suppliers and wealthy customers.

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