Algeria, Tunisia, Libya:

A Shared Border History

Modern borders are at the nexus of the national and transnational. Beginning in 1910, we follow Algeria,
Tunisia, and Libya in their negotiation of colonial borders, their reactions to cross-border pressures, and
their struggle with pan-Arabism. Time and again, we find that Maghrebi states cling to their sovereignty
and consider the inviolability of their borders as sacrosanct.

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Algeria, Tunisia, Libya: A Shared Border History













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Colonial Borders and a Tribal Uprising
Tunisia sees its border with Libya demarcated as a result of an agreement between France and the Ottoman rulers of Libya.

For the Ouerghemma, a large tribal coalition with a presence on both sides of the new boundary, this effectively splits their communities, leading to a
short-lived uprising the following year.

Portrait of Mohamed V Al Nasir, Bey of Tunis 1906-22. Le Petit Journal, Getty.
Conference of Tangier: A nationalist movement of solidarity
With the tide turning against colonialism, political forces in the region take charge of their destinies. Calls for unity have always been part of post-colonial narratives in the Arab world, and the Maghreb is no exception.

Algeria's National Liberation Front, Morocco's Istiqlal, and Tunisia's Neo Destour – each tied to the other by colonisation at the hands of the French – meet in Tangier and agree to create a federal union upon Algeria’s independence.
A protest against the French presence organised by the Tunisian Neo
Destour in Tunis, 1958. Keystone-France/Magnum Photos

Algeria Wins Independence,
the Maghreb Fractures
Algeria gains independence, though this does not, as anticipated, mark the beginning of a united Maghreb. What follows is a long-running rivalry with Morocco which goes on to shape much of the geopolitical dynamics in the region. Here, individual national ideologies supersede post-colonial solidarity, thus placing borders at the centre of Maghrebi regional politics.
Algerian youth celebrate their country’s independence, July 5, 1962
Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos.

Colonial Borders Are Here to Stay
Friction between Algeria and Morocco forebodes upheaval for newly independent states whose borders were drawn by their colonisers. To avoid such confrontation, states in West Asia and North Africa settle on their colonial boundaries at an Organisation of African Unity summit in Cairo.
“... all Member States
pledge themselves to respect
the borders existing on their
achievement of national
Paragraph 3, Article III, Charter of the Organisation of African
Unity, 1963.

The Boumediene Era: An assertive
Algeria causes regional tensions
Less than three years into his role as leader of Algeria, President Ahmed Ben Bella is deposed by Defence Minister Houari Boumedienne. Unlike his predecessor, Boumedienne is more sceptical of regional integration, while his policies further antagonise relations between Algeria and Morocco. With other Maghreb states forced to choose sides as a result, Tunisia incurs Algeria’s wrath for supporting Morocco.

Former Algerian President Houari Boumediene, 1972. Central Press/Getty Images
Whither National Borders? A failed
Attempt at Unification
Muammar Qaddafi, Libya's leader since 1969, carries the flame for pan-Arabism, seeking its ideological power to expand his influence. Libya and Tunisia sign a unity agreement to form the Arab Islamic Republic. However, unification plans are short lived due to clashing ideologies and differing objectives.

While Habib Bourguiba seeks to reap the economic benefits of a union, Qaddafi regards it as a vehicle to export his revolutionary politics. As a result, and following Tunisia’s withdrawal from the agreement, Qaddafi cuts all ties by expelling Tunisian workers from Libya and closing the borders – using the latter as a foreign policy tool to pressure or destabilise neighbouring states.

The Arab Islamic Republic's proposed flag. Wikimedia Commons
Gafsa Insurgency: The power of borders
to destabilise
A weakened Tunisia experiences how porous borders can be used by adversaries to incite political turmoil, after Libya and Algeria unite in an attempt to undermine Bourguiba. The two states collaborate to smuggle exiled Tunisians from Libya, through Algeria, into Tunisia's southern borderlands. At their final destination, the Tunisians mount an unsuccessful armed insurgency in Gafsa.

Defendants accused of taking part in the Gafsa insurgency stand trial,
March 28, 1980. Al Amal
Brotherhood and Concord: Algeria and Tunisia reconcile
A treaty is signed between Algeria and Tunisia to develop common borderlands, the first to recognise the importance of borders as a shared concern between neighbouring countries.

From this point on, the Algerian-Tunisian relationship is arguably the most co-operative in the Maghreb. This change in policy comes after the arrival of Chadli Bendjedid to the Algerian presidency in 1979, which marks the beginning of improved relations between the country and its neighbours.

Former Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid, 1983. Joel Robine/
Getty Images
Qaddafi's Revolution Knows No Borders
In nearby Libya, Qaddafi displays growing resentment against the reality of the borders. Preaching to his followers during a speech, the leader makes plain his views of the borders as illegitimate, encouraging informal trade between the communities that line them.
"When the colonisers left… they
handed us a fake independence…
they told us to create passports,
create borders, and kill each other
over these borders."
Speech by Muammer Qaddafi, Sabha, Libya, February 8, 1988. YouTube

Standing Divided: The dream of
Maghrebi Union and open borders
Despite Qaddafi's warnings, momentum for regional
co-operation grows, driven by the collapse of oil prices and the end of the Cold War. Capitalising on improved bilateral relations, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, together with Mauritania and Morocco, found the Arab Maghreb Union. As a result, Libya and Tunisia re-establish diplomatic relations and re-open their border, crowning Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali’s pursuit to improve relations with Qaddafi.

A stamp commemorating the first anniversary of the Arab Maghreb
Union, 1988
Uprisings and Volatile Borders
The fall of Ben Ali and Qaddafi, coupled with the ensuing conflict in Libya, make the region’s borders a topic of international concern.

Refugees fleeing violence, a surge in cross-border smuggling, and infiltration by armed militants place enormous pressure on states. As a result, borderlands become heavily militarised zones.

A fighter holds his gun next to a torn poster of Qaddafi, Libya, 2011. Ahmed Al Rubaye/Getty Images

Y. Zoubir and H. Amirah-Fernández (eds.), North Africa:
Politics, Region, and the Limits of Transformation
Routledge, 2008.

D. Bechev and K. Nicolaidis, Mediterranean Frontiers:
Borders, Conflict and Memory in a Transnational World
Library of International Relations, I.B. Tauris, January,

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