With special thanks to Butheina Kazim, Myriem Boussaad, Kal Ben Khalid, Matthew Herbert Research last updated on January 25, 2017.
“A dynasty is stronger at its centre than it is at its border regions,” wrote the 14th-century Maghrebi scholar and statesman Ibn Khaldun.
Today, his observation continues to inform our understanding of the challenges facing states and societies in the Maghreb.
Sharing a history of trans-Saharan trading, a patchwork of ethnicities, and modern borders that define post-colonial states, the borderlands between Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya are at the nexus of the national and transnational.
Well before the first ripples of upheaval in Tunisia scattered across the region in 2011, smuggling, extremism, and conflict challenged the perception of these borders as fixed and inviolable. The uprisings that subsequently engulfed the region amplified these powerful transnational currents.
What follows is the story of borderlands, the often overlooked stage in this regional drama.
Ibn Khaldun warned that a weak dynasty “begins to crumble at its extremities”. His observation is still relevant, in a world shaped by transnational trends that challenge borders and state power.
Migration, trafficking, and armed extremism are the main challenges that prompt states to assert control over their borders. Across the Arab world, but particularly in the Maghreb, this reflex has resulted in a variety of walls, fences, and boundaries that control and restrict spaces and those who live within them.
Modern borders in the Maghreb, “the land of sunset”, sprung from the pre-modern states that Ibn Khaldun wrote about six centuries ago. Regional borders developed naturally around old trading routes that connected the region with the Sahel. The dynasties that controlled these territories eventually came under Ottoman and European influence.
Charles Gavard’s engraving, circa 1826-70, portrays Hafsid Sultan Mulau Abu Abdullah Al Hassan. Many of the Maghreb’s current borders are based on boundaries established during the Hafsid dynasty.
Colonial borders were largely based on the outlines of territories consolidated under dynasties such as the Hafsids, the former rulers of Ifriqiya, whose power base was located in modern-day Tunisia. Ibn Khaldun himself served Hafsid rulers at various times during the 14th century.
As a social theorist, Ibn Khaldun was ahead of his time, conceiving of the border as a political construct long before the emergence of the concept as we know it today. Central to his thesis was the political relationship between the seat of power and the territories at the edges of its control.
Today, borders stand for a sense of regional order, even if modern conflicts challenge this assumption. The current turmoil in Syria and Iraq, for example, has created the impression that this order might be crumbling and that borders are destined to be redrawn or disappear altogether. Still, states tend to cling to their sovereignty and consider the inviolability of their borders as sacrosanct.
Ibn Khaldun’s warning about the importance of extremities rings true today as growing cross-border economic flows, fragile political transitions, strained social contracts, resurgent identity claims, and metastasising jihadism increasingly threaten state power. At the same time, for those living in the extremities, ties to communities across the frontier are sometimes stronger than the connection to their own capital.
William Zartman writes that borders run across land but through people, and defines borderlands as “boundaries in depth, space around a line, the place where state meets society”.
Dislocated from central control, borders mark national territory – not just on a map but in the mind as well. But these lines often fail to reflect economic, social, or even political realities. In this way, borders in the Maghreb represent neither the beginning nor the end of a state’s sovereignty. Rather than simple lines, they are buffer zones in which the interaction between two or more states creates a unique area called the borderland.
The borderlands of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya cannot be understood without placing them within the wider geopolitical context of the Maghreb. Although the Maghreb encompasses a larger range of countries – namely, Morocco and Mauritania – the borderlands that are the subject of this essay are formed around three borders that connect and merge roughly where
the Sahara begins. Running across more than 2,400km, these three borders shape a branching yet geographically connected space. The states and the borders that define them are linked through the unique shared experiences created by their geographical, social, and political conditions.
Traders traverse an ancient caravan trail circa 1900 in what is now Algeria. These trading routes crisscross the Maghreb and Sahara, often cutting through post-independence state lines.
We investigate borders and borderlands because they are central to understanding the transnational trends influencing our world.
Using an interdisciplinary perspective, we investigate borders and borderlands because they are central to understanding state-society relations, the transnational trends influencing our world, and how states respond to these challenges.
Not only in the Maghreb but across the world, borderlands are areas in which transnational identities are negotiated and economic interdependencies forged. They host a transnational smuggling trade and provide passage for armed groups to safe havens. Borderlands are a space of contention for revolutionary politics and often divide ethnic groups that have a shared history. Paradoxically, after long separating states, they bring them together around common challenges.