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Frontier Effects in North Africa: Centering Margins and Borderlands

Panel VI-17, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
What are the institutional arrangements and organizational forms of human life that create and sustain the effect of frontiers? Although frontiers are often conflated with linear borderlines, this panel views frontiers as geographical zones that imaginatively and materially embody social, economic, and political liminality, while otherwise generating immense levels of state and imperial anxiety. Frontiers — and what we're calling the frontier effect — must be produced by ideas, by bodies, by material infrastructures, and by new configurations of human and non-human relations. And yet frontiers are also essential spaces of production, making livelihoods and (in)securities possible. This panel will explore these themes from several vantage points—historical as well as contemporary—while covering a range of regional geographies across North Africa. Proceeding in chronological order: the first two papers interrogate the perspective of the colonial state, examining how the metropole insisted upon ‘seeing’ the frontier as a particular challenge to colonial governance. In one case, the French engaged in vociferous debates about how to harness the rich mining resources in its North African protectorates, particularly Morocco; in another, the Italian colonial government sought to redefine the scope of Libyan “citizenship,” particularly as they struggled to track down and reclaim tens of thousands of Libyans who had migrated across borders and taken up exile in Egypt and Tunisia. The panel’s third historical paper also takes up the theme of forced migration and displacement, exploring the creation of a new border regime around Algeria in the fraught years of decolonization. Two final papers take up contemporary issues and employ disparate theoretical approaches to examine the construction of social and cultural frontiers in the Maghreb. The first of these adopts gender as a lens–a metaphorical “checkpoint”--through which to read the Egyptian state’s persistent othering of its Siwan population; the other questions the subtle forces that govern the border between North Africa and Europe across the Mediterranean, while exploring the strategies that marginalized frontier communities use to navigate this trans-continental space. The ultimate purpose of this panel is to organize an interdisciplinary, multi-sited dialogue that re-centers the periphery by exploring the social, political, and economic practices that constitute frontiers in Northern Africa - a region that has not always received adequate treatment in broader discussions on borders and frontiers in MENA-region scholarship.
Political Science
  • This paper adopts interwar Libya as a lens to explore the dynamic relationship between frontiers and citizenship in the history of twentieth-century European colonial expansion. Upon its conquest of the Ottoman Libyan provinces in 1911-12, Italy—like all colonial states—immediately sought to define the scope of its territorial sovereignty by delineating and fortifying the borders of its new so-called “fourth shore” in North Africa. At the same time, beginning in 1911, the Italian government initiated a piecemeal sequence of legislation that, over nearly three decades, would continually redefine the bounds of Italian citizenship vis-à-vis its overseas possessions. The question of who belonged within the domain of Italianness (Italianità) became a particular state fixation, considering the ten million Africans over whom Rome claimed sovereignty by 1939. The project of defining Italian citizenship in colonial Libya was complicated by the mobility of large swaths of the local population. During the Italian colonial period, tens if not hundreds of thousands of Libyans fled Italian rule and took refuge across the frontiers in neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. Based on deep archival research in two key Italian state archives, this paper explores the range of the Italian colonial state’s responses to the challenges of Libyan cross-border mobility, and the impact that this little-known aspect of colonial governance had on the articulation of its empire-wide citizenship regime. How did the Italian government view and keep track of its mobile Libyan subjects, and how did it seek to define and legislate different criteria and norms for membership for them in its more expansive Italian political community? And how might mobility as a defining feature of the Libyan experience of Italian colonialism complicate historical understandings of modern Italy as an imperial state more broadly, while also helping us grapple with the legacy of the Italian period in shaping notions of national citizenship and belonging across North Africa today? To answer these questions, the paper begins by highlighting a number of disputes between the Italian and Egyptian governments over the juridical status of Libyan refugees living in various Egyptian cities and towns—an ongoing occurrence throughout the interwar period. It then demonstrates the impact of Libyan cross-border mobility by illuminating the debate that erupted among Italian colonial officials in the late-30s over a new legal category known as “Special Italian Citizenship,” which was to be reserved for loyal Muslim Libyans.
  • Siwa is located at two frontiers – it is the eastern-most outpost of the Amazigh community that extends across North Africa, and it is Egypt’s western-most oasis, located at the territorial and linguistic margins of the Nile-based and predominantly Arabic-speaking Egyptian nation. In the post-2011 era, the Egyptian regime has heavily securitized this border area, including via aerial surveillance and spatial lockdown. Movement to and from the oasis is subject to military regulation, requiring passage through up to six military checkpoints. Using data from 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork and the documentation of 201 checkpoint interactions, I take checkpoints as sites of ethnographic analysis. I ask, what do interactions at checkpoints reveal about the bordering practices that take place within national territory, and across the scales of state- and community-sanctioned norms for regulating mobility? I demonstrate how checkpoints interpolate Siwans as subjects of a broader national body, while at the same time producing and sustaining a host of distinctions—ethnic, gendered, classed. Specifically, I examine the unwritten patriarchal pact between Egyptian soldiers and Siwan men that stipulates soldiers not address Siwan women but speak only with their male guardians. In doing so, I show how in addition to manifesting the territorial reach of the state, checkpoints also function as sites of encounter and negotiation, wherein a host of actors are involved in generating and sustaining bordering practices, including as they pertain to appropriately gendered behaviors. This work has broader implications for how we understand projects of (uneven) territorialization within nation-state territory. Considering such checkpoints as analytical sites centers the day-to-day experiences of those forced to navigate them, while foregrounding internal and scalar dynamics shaping life in the shadow of the border.
  • Dr. Laura Robson
    The twentieth century’s most brutal war of decolonization, the three-way French-settler-Algerian struggle of 1954 – 1962, displaced between a third and a half of Algeria’s population and in so doing created a new opportunity to constitute and define North Africa’s postcolonial borders under the rubric of a newly constituted form of internationalist humanitarian aid. Beginning in 1957, Tunisia and Morocco both appealed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for assistance with the huge numbers of Algerian refugees streaming into their territories. As the UNHCR began to provide supplies and build camps for displaced Algerians in the Tunisian and Moroccan border zones, it became a key external partner for these newly independent North African governments trying to constitute the political and physical parameters of their state – and for the increasingly beleaguered French colonial state in Algeria as well, whose military interests the UNHCR committed to protecting in return for a show of institutional support. From the late 1950s, the UNHCR moved towards a policy (supported by the Tunisian, Moroccan, and French governments alike) of physically containing refugees in border areas where they would be provided with material aid while also prevented from providing the FLN with aid, information, or men. This purportedly humanitarian presence had the effect of producing border areas defined by military-style encampment making developmentalist claims, alongside new regimes of documentation for displaced and local populations alike that situated both as clearly defined national citizens of a single postcolonial state. When in 1962 the agency took on the task of mass “repatriation,” it was therefore positioned to assign national identities and physical destinations not just to its refugee charges but also to any number of local residents, as well as to previously nomadic border inhabitants whose prewar nationalities could not easily be defined but who were forcibly remade as citizens of a postcolonial Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco through this internationalized border management process. During the course of the war, then, this new form of refugee assistance created a clearly defined border regime marked equally by practices of developmentalist aid and techniques of internment, combined with a new regime of documentation designed actively to produce specific postcolonial forms of national belonging.
  • Dr. Karen Eugenie Rignall
    Critical environmental approaches to renewable energy have identified the creation of new resource frontiers as a problematic aspect of energy transition efforts, especially in the Global South where utility-scale projects often dispossess already marginalized residents. However, these frontiers usually emerge in peripheries that had already been constituted as “new” resource frontiers during colonial incorporation into global capitalism. This paper examines one historical moment in the creation of resource frontiers in southeastern Morocco as laying the bureaucratic, juridical, and political framework for contemporary reappropriations of land and other natural resources in the service of renewable energy. Specifically, I review internal debates within the French colonial administration about how to simultaneously facilitate and control mining in the zones of the Protectorate that had not yet or were in the process of coming under French military control. The archives of the Service des Mines and Bureau de Recherche et Participations Minières reveal considerable angst and dissension within the colonial bureaucracy about how to manage the pressures coming from French and other European interests to open the southeastern periphery for resource extraction. This paper examines those debates in the context of residents’ lived experiences of colonial dispossession and partial incorporation into a centralizing, modern state, especially through erasure of their sovereignty over land and the sub-surface. I argue that resource frontiers evince an uneven and ambivalent relationship to political frontiers, as diverse state and corporate actors contest how to incorporate people, territories, and resources into polities and markets. These contestations highlight the importance of bureaucratic procedure and the often quiet work of the colonial administrative apparatus in creating resource frontiers. I further argue that we must attend to silences and erasures in the colonial fashioning of resource frontiers—especially around land tenure issues—to understand the relationship of those frontiers to the diverse forms of sovereignty that were consolidated but not completely eradicated in the formation of the modern, territorializing state.
  • Governments pursue the enhanced visibility of people and things. They observe and survey in order to codify, catalogue, classify and calculate. Rather than trace the contours of such projects, this paper seeks to provoke a more sustained engagement with modes of errantry that confound their logics of command and control. Building on more than twelve months of multi-sited ethnography in southern Spain and northern Morocco, it explores how marginalized communities in spatial peripheries navigate unequal geographies of visibility. To do so, I revisit the work of Édouard Glissant and some of his interlocutors in the anti-colonial and Black critical thought traditions in order to contemplate fluctuating vectors of opacity amongst communities living in hashish trafficking hubs. Frequently stigmatized as violent criminals and indolent freeloaders—their itineraries effaced—inhabitants of the provinces of the Campo de Gibraltar (Spain) and Rif (Morocco) are regularly told that the solution to their ills lies in legality, in giving up on the shadowy activities that place them in opposition to the law’s luminous strictures. Yet transparency offers little, suspicions of criminality potentially annulled in exchange for a few bucks of welfare support, if that. Spaces grappling with detection and wrestling with capture may very well offer more. This paper explores these spaces, and the ostensibly deviant actors that populate them, without reading them as anomaly or disturbance but as compromised responses to imposed situations worthy of political and ethnographic reflection. Borderlands not only generate anxiety and trepidation amongst the governments of the Western Mediterranean. They are also sites of production, exchange and trade, making lives and livelihoods possible amidst the exclusion and abandonment to which such areas are often subject.