Territory, Identity and Local Governance in Tunisia: How Municipal Boundaries Shape Local Politics

By Intissar Kherigi
Submitted to Session P5891 (Decentralization and Local Governance in Tunisia, 2020 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the redrawing of municipal boundaries in Tunisia in 2014-19, a far-reaching reform that has amended the boundaries of 187 existing municipalities out of a total of 264 and created 86 new municipalities. The paper examines how Tunisia’s decentralization reforms designed to empower local actors create new conflicts over space and what implications these conflicts have for municipalities’ capacity to govern their territory.

Based on over a year of fieldwork in three regions of Tunisia, the paper analyzes the various logics driving the process of drawing municipal boundaries and maps the roles and relations of the actors involved, including politicians, bureaucrats, business actors, experts, international donors and civil society organizations. It then juxtaposes the logics of decision-makers with those of local actors through case studies of four municipalities whose boundary changes have been deeply contested. It argues that municipal boundaries in Tunisia have largely been drawn on the basis of two logics - a centralized administrative logic that views boundary-drawing as a technical exercise to be carried out by the central state based on “scientific criteria”, and a clientelistic logic based on an exchange of interests with business actors, particularly real estate developers.

While there has been a growing literature on decentralization in the Arab world, the drawing of territorial boundaries of municipal authorities, the basic units of decentralization, receives little attention. This is despite the fact that acts of boundary-making have significant sociological, political and economic consequences for local governance. The way in which boundaries are drawn empowers some geographical areas or groups while marginalizing others. The act of recognizing an area as a municipality provided a means of access to state grants, credits, and equipment, as well as symbolic value. Particularistic relations have historically played an important role in decisions to draw new boundaries, with municipalities created in areas where local leaders enjoyed privileged relations with the head of state (Turki and Gana 2015, 56).