Tunisians took their grievances to the streets again in January when peaceful demonstrations broke out in cities across the country. Protesters mobilized amidst a continuing social and economic crisis and against the backdrop of a three-day COVID-19 lockdown that began on January 14, 2021—the tenth anniversary of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia. At night young people violated the curfew and clashed with police forces who responded with violent repression and thousands of arrests.

Protesters sit outside a tent near the entrance of the phosphate mine in Umm al-Arais, Tunisia, on February 15, 2018. Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

The National Campaign to Support the Social Struggles, a committee coordinating the protests, blamed the entire political class for the economic crisis and the country’s inadequate response to the health crisis in its January 25 statement, titled “The People’s Program Against the Elites’ Program.” The campaign accused “the bourgeoisie” that has ruled Tunisia since 2011—when protesters toppled Ben Ali’s regime during the Arab uprisings—of diverting attention from social and economic problems through endless political bickering over ministerial appointments and conflicts between the president, the prime minister and the parliament.

Confronting the elites and their allies across society, the campaign proposed developing a program to separate “forces aligned with the people and those of the bourgeoisie and of colonialism.” Covering a range of issues, from debt relief for farmers and financial aid to alleviate the impact of the pandemic to police brutality, their formulation builds on the work of diverse social movements that have emerged within the country over the last decade.

A few months before the National Campaign’s statement, on November 8, 2020, the government led by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi signed an agreement with demonstrators in Al-Kamour in the southern province of Tataouine, which ended a nearly four-year wave of social mobilizations. The government’s acceptance of the protestors’ demands, and the new protests that engulfed the country, are testimony to the growing political salience of regional economic and social inequalities and the rising strength of the marginalized—those excluded from accessing social, political, economic and natural resources. More than ever, Tunisia is witnessing the growing activism and anger of its marginalized populations, who were the first to rise up against Ben Ali and his regime. The post-revolutionary governments have, however, failed to address the root causes of their anger, including unemployment, limited access to health care and education, clientelism, corruption and nepotism. The ongoing protests by the marginalized reflect the fact that the Tunisian revolution not only sought to secure political freedoms and democratic institutions. It also pushed for social and economic development and an end to the enduring inequalities that divide the coastal areas of the country from the peripheralized and marginalized interior.

In Tunisia, where economically excluded groups are also politically marginalized, the question of marginality is the most pressing political issue. A focus on those populations who are subject to multiple forms of economic, political and social marginalization requires rethinking and reassessing the dynamics of contention, protest and resistance beyond the classic institutions of political representation such as parties and labor unions.


The Revolution and the Marginalized


The Tunisian revolution of 2011 was characterized by a gradual coming together of different types of protest and contentious movements against Ben Ali’s regime (1987–2011). This mass movement, which started as a local struggle led by workers, the unemployed, the marginalized and the youth, turned into a national and popular protest when factions of the middle classes, the urban lower classes and even some members of the business elite became involved. This movement not only ousted Ben Ali but also demanded radical political change under the banner of “dignity, freedom and (social) justice.”

The politicization of the masses in 2011 started in the largely rural areas of central Tunisia, specifically in Sidi Bouzid, the town where Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010. The protest movement’s ensuing spread throughout the interior of the country since then—occupying lands, blocking roads, shutting down oil pipelines and staging sit-ins—is a reaction to the forms of capital accumulation generated by neoliberal developmental programs.

The protest movement’s ensuing spread throughout the interior of the country since 2011—occupying lands, blocking roads, shutting down oil pipelines and staging sit-ins—is a reaction to the forms of capital accumulation generated by neoliberal developmental programs.
The work of political economist Samir Amin shows that capitalism’s development in the global periphery did not lead to the same clear processes of proletarianization, market formation and urbanization as in the global center but rather to “the marginalization of the masses.”[1] Such marginalization results from mechanisms of impoverishment that are tied to the semi-proletarianization of small peasants (a growing reserve labor army), the destitution without proletarianization of a fraction of the peasants (a surplus population) and the massive increase in unemployment and underemployment of the urban poor. Marginalization can be conceptualized as the way in which imperial, colonial, liberal and neoliberal policies have affected class formation in the Global South.

There are two dimensions of marginality that have influenced the revolutionary process and forms of social protest in Tunisia: social and spatial marginalization. The urban poor and popular classes are primarily affected by social marginalization: They suffer mainly from declining incomes, limited access to resources and a general lack of public services. These populations are also marginalized through individual and collective stigmatization of the neighborhoods where they live, which are represented as dangerous and beset by crime, drugs, Salafism and prostitution.[2] On the other hand, populations living in peripheral, largely rural southern, central and northwestern regions within the country are subject to a process of double dispossession. The first process is social marginalization and stigmatization similar to that experienced by residents of the popular neighborhoods in the large cities. The second dimension, spatial marginalization, is a much more complex process that is embedded within the local political economies of the different regions. This kind of marginalization consists of the massive expropriation of the regions’ resources to the almost exclusive benefit of the center—mainly the big cities of the Sahel, Tunis and beyond to global markets. Whether these resources are water, land, human labor, agricultural products or raw materials (including phosphate, iron and gas) everything is carefully extracted from the peripheral regions and transported to the center where they are treated, refined, converted, consumed or exported.

This accumulation by dispossession—where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of elites at the expense of others—has known almost no limits since the beginning of Tunisia’s neoliberal economic restructuring in the late 1980s.[3] The peripheral regions have come to be defined by a general lack of investment in jobs, services, adequate health facilities, clean water and schools. Some activists define the situation as one of internal colonization because this unequal distribution of the benefits of development stretch back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial era and have been sustained by postcolonial elites, as well as the post-2011 governments.

Marginalized Tunisians—whether in rural areas or urban centers—hoped that the post-revolution governments would work to improve their daily lives by addressing the inequalities and disadvantages they face. Instead, governments caught between the neoliberal demands of international financial institutions and domestic social turmoil chose to launch limited cash-based employment programs. These narrow efforts created unproductive, short-term and essentially fake jobs, which were in part corruptly allocated on the basis of political allegiances and personalized networks. Even the Islamist party of Ennahda has been either unwilling or unable to pass essential land or fiscal reforms to address social and geographical inequalities, fearing the entrenched interests of economic elites and by and large accepting the neoliberal logic of international financial organizations. The approval of the new constitution in 2014 could have been a crucial milestone in securing Tunisia’s democratic experiment but came at a great cost for the marginalized. When the traditional political elites, who rallied around the Nidaa Tounes party, struck a deal with Ennahda, the political system stabilized but also foreclosed the possibility of any substantive and tangible change in socioeconomic policies of development.


Marginality Reconsidered


The condition of marginality is connected to macroeconomic processes and uneven development that integrates regions and their inhabitants in a political economy that facilitates their exploitation. Marginalized groups are thus a feature of developmental policies, a never-to-be-absorbed part that is created and reproduced through economic relations of exploitation, manipulation and repression. Since capitalism is simultaneously a homogenizing (integrating) and differentiating (excluding) process, marginality is not simply a condition of those laboring populations not yet integrated into capitalism, their non-integration is instead a permanent feature of capitalism.[4] At the same time, marginalized communities have always confronted the political center’s unequal distribution of rights and the reproduction of social inequality that is used to control, segregate and exploit them.

Neoliberal economic reforms worldwide have generated forms of poverty that are thus neither residual nor cyclical or transitional. Instead, poverty will be inscribed in the future of contemporary societies as long as they are fed by the ongoing fragmentation of the wage-labor relationship—the growth in part-time, informal, unregulated and self-employed forms of labor; the uneven connection of dispossessed neighborhoods to national and global economies and the reconfiguration of the (welfare) state in socioeconomically divided cities. This form of advanced marginalization was conceptualized by Loïc Wacquant in the banlieues of Paris and the ghettos of Chicago. It refers to a specifically post-industrial condition characterized by particular configurations of race, class and space defined by territorial separation and stigmatization, economic constraints and heavy dependence on welfare programs.[5]

Nevertheless, the socially and spatially marginalized classes have, over the course of the last decades, developed livelihoods, survival strategies and a number of tactics of resistance that reflect a growing consciousness of their shared interests, if not a class consciousness.
Nevertheless, the socially and spatially marginalized classes have, over the course of the last decades, developed livelihoods, survival strategies and a number of tactics of resistance that reflect a growing consciousness of their shared interests, if not a class consciousness. In the border areas of Tunisia, with Libya to the south and Algeria to the west, a parallel economy is expanding exponentially that is bypassing completely the formal economic structures of the country. In other parts of the country different forms of informal employment are growing (along with the feminization of agricultural labor), and undocumented migration toward the cities—as well as to Europe—is rising: Both of these trends are consequences of the disempowerment of the marginalized.

At the same time, marginalized populations in both rural areas and urban working-class neighborhoods constantly circumvent the power of the central state by refusing to declare fiscal incomes (thus making it difficult for municipal governments and central authorities to levy taxes), by building illegal dwellings on publicly owned land, by expanding informal credit systems outside the formal banking sector and by evading military service, among other tactics. These spaces of exclusion and marginalization should therefore not only be seen as spaces of misery and poverty—as people are pushed to a life of necessity and survival not of their own choice—but also as spaces of opportunity where new social arrangements emerge at a distance from the capitalist economy.[6]


New Forms of Resistance


Neoliberal development has incited new forms of resistance by the marginalized. What emerges from these different types of rural mobilization is an environmentalism of the poor—an environmentalism that, in its search for dignity and social justice and in its fight against exclusion, seeks to overcome decades-long social and spatial marginalization. Environmental concerns are embedded within the more pressing demands for jobs, access to land, the provision of and access to services and the redistribution of wealth. All the spontaneous movements that have organized and coalesced around demands for jobs in the oil industry in Al-Kamour, for the redistribution of wealth from the phosphate industry’s extraction of natural resources in Gafsa and against the dispossession of peasant lands in Jemna, stress the importance and centrality of popular control and self-management of resources beyond the logic of capitalist accumulation. These movements led by the marginalized, however, are not necessarily revolutionary. The social mobilizations seem to be driven by a moral economy in which a clear demand for state intervention remains central. The ultimate goal of these mobilizations has been less the radical transformation of the country’s institutions than the implementation of policies that directly influence the lifeworld of the marginalized. They are demanding policies that could ensure a life of dignity through access to employment and the opportunity to develop an autonomous livelihood.

Nevertheless, the demand for autonomous forms of development as a response to the neoliberal models that maintain Tunisia’s unequal integration into the world economy seem to point toward the gradual emergence of alternative political trajectories. The social mobilizations of the marginalized waver between, on the one hand, the search for a form of political representation as the National Campaign to Support the Social Struggle illustrates and, on the other hand, a focus on localized mobilizations with limited scope. But it is becoming clear that the marginalized are able to assert their collective will and make themselves heard in the face of adversity and to subvert their status as dispossessed. They are also revealing their socio-spatial solidarities that are rooted in militant and regional experiences of mobilization.[7] These solidarities build on the memory of past mobilizations and connect the fight against French colonialism in the first half of the twentieth century to the 1978 mobilizations against former President Habib Bourguiba and the 2011 revolution against Ben Ali.

These solidarities have a growing potential to create political change as they connect demands for agrarian reform with working-class struggles against entrenched neoliberal interests and push for industrial development and the more equitable provision of services.[8] Since the marginalized do not constitute a homogenous group or class, and as the government alternates repressive and delegitimizing policies with strategies of cooptation, it is difficult to forecast the outcome of the protests.

It is becoming clear, however, that the marginalized are less interested in gaining access to the formal institutionalized centers of power than in building a form of counter-power created through the solidarity of their struggles.
It is becoming clear, however, that the marginalized are less interested in gaining access to the formal institutionalized centers of power than in building a form of counter-power created through the solidarity of their struggles. As such, the marginalized are sustaining the spirit of the 2011 revolutionary events and are still redefining the terms in which Tunisia will write its future.

While the Tunisian political elites still hope that simply redrawing the political map of the country will suffice to diffuse the political and economic crisis, the marginalized are redefining the contours of the political itself. For the time being, in a context of unequal power relations, the marginalized still lack enough political clout, allies and fellow travelers—in political parties, labor unions or intellectual circles—to challenge the hegemony of the ruling elites. But for how much longer?


[Sami Zemni is professor of political and social sciences at Ghent University in Belgium where he coordinates the Middle East and North Africa Research Group.]





[1] Samir Amin, Unequal Development. An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976).

[2] Olfa Lamloum and Mohamed Ali Ben Zina, eds., Les Jeunes de Douar Hicher et d’Ettadhamen. Une enquête sociologique (Tunis: International Alert et Arabesques, 2015); Habib Ayeb, “Social and Political Geography of the Tunisian Revolution: The Alfa Grass Revolution,” Review of African Political Economy 38/129 (August 2011).

[3] David Harvey, “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” Socialist Register 40 (2004).

[4] I thank my colleague Brecht De Smet for this argument that he developed in a discussion seminar at Ghent University.

[5] Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008).

[6] Ray Bush and Habib Ayeb, eds., Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt (London: Zed Books, 2012); Asef Bayat, “Marginality: Curse or Cure?” in Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt, op cit.

[7] Asef Bayat, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2017); Sami Zemni and Habib Ayeb, “The Social and Economic Roots of the Tunisian Revolution. Towards a Socio- Spatial Class Analysis,” Paper presented at the London School of Economics, November 20, 2015.

[8] Max Ajl, “Does the Arab Region Have an Agrarian Question?” The Journal of Peasant Studies (2020); Bush and Ayeb, op cit.


How to cite this article:

Sami Zemni "Tunisia’s Marginalized Redefine the Political," Middle East Report Online, March 16, 2021.

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