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.
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
borders at the centre of Maghrebi regional politics.
Algerian youth celebrate their country’s
independence, July 5, 1962 Marc
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
Paragraph 3, Article III, Charter of the Organisation of African Unity,
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/
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,
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
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,
D. Bechev and K. Nicolaidis, Mediterranean Frontiers:
Borders, Conflict and Memory in a Transnational World,
Library of International Relations, I.B. Tauris, January,