Recently, all we talk about is Jemna1. It has become the new bone of contention. Exchanges are violent, charged with furor and raised voices. In the médias aux ordres, the most unlikely of arguments are used to denounce the occupation of land by peasants. Such arguments say more about the fantasies of their authors than they do about the reality of the situation.

I do not wish to add my voice to the racket, but simply to recall a few basic facts in order to help refocus the debate on the core issues which go far beyond the particular case of this southern oasis.

The State as landowner

First, let’s examine the status of State-owned lands, of which Jemna’s farm is but a tiny parcel. State properties stretch across nearly 800,000 hectares and cover a large proportion of the country’s most fertile lands. Before independence in 1956, these lands were owned by French colonists and their kin. They were nationalized under the agricultural decolonization law of 1964, after which their management was entrusted to the OTD (Office des terres domaniales [Office of State-owned Lands]) and placed under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture.


The question we must ask is why: why did the State hang on to the land? Is it part of its mission to detain agricultural lands and ensure their exploitation? Is the State serving its role when it operates as both landowner and farmer? These lands were grabbed from the peasantry by a foreign occupant. Their recovery was one of the main demands of the national liberation movement. Once taken over by the State, would it not have been healthier, more normal, more just, to return the land to its original owners?

The official argument at the time—and subsequently repeated by successive governments—was that Tunisian peasants were too technologically backwards and financially disadvantaged to exploit these lands efficiently and profitably, whereas public management could maintain and improve production levels, create value, and use the surplus produced to finance the rest of the economy.

This reasoning might have held had it been confirmed in practice, which is not the case. Even in glossing over the short period of forced collectivization (1965-1969) which provoked a veritable collapse in agricultural production, the result of public exploitation of State-owned lands was has always incurred deficit. These claims are not unfounded. The OTD’s accounts are published every year. There has not been a single case of surplus recorded since 1970. The scandal has gone on for half a century. The OTD is chronically deficient, and its deficit plummets as time goes on.

Instead of developing modern, efficient, profitable agriculture, the exploitation of State-owned lands by the OTD has only produced deficit, burdening the State budget instead of relieving it. Worse, it has given rise to an organized system of corruption, and this at all levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy.

This unbridled corruption is not an accidental, but inevitable, result of public management of the land. And it is only more inevitable given that all of this has taken place within a political system—particularly from the time that Ben Ali came to power—which has become the accomplice and protector of a mafia-driven, business-oriented oligarchy whose interests have taken precedence over those of the State and the country.

It is doubtlessly this disturbing reality which explains the virulence of those who denounce the recovery of Jemna’s farm by inhabitants of the oasis. As soon as the farm changed hands, it suddenly became the beneficiary of transparent management: this created an intolerable precedent…

Peasants’ right to the land and democracy

Since 2011, the occupation of State-owned farms by peasants is not limited to this one southern oasis. It is a phenomenon that has been repeated in dozens of other agricultural areas across the country. It is time to ask why, especially because the phenomenon has concerned only State-owned lands, never lands owned by private farmers, no matter how big their properties. This is proof that these are not unreasonable anarchical sharing demands which attack massive land-ownership itself, but rather a reappropriation movement exclusively targeting State property2.

Many thought that the revolution which pushed out Ben Ali was only political and that it boiled down to a simple change of the team in power. This is notably what the majority of former opposition parties seemed to believe. They were seriously mistaken. Real revolutions are political, but they are also, and above all, economic and social: by eliminating the illegitimate and counterproductive privileges of a minority, they aim to introduce an overall reorganization of economy and society in order to respond to the needs of the majority and to promote national development and wealth.

The Tunisian uprising was supported by four main social groups: rural society, the population of peripheral neighborhoods, salaried employees, and middle classes3. By participating in this uprising, each of these groups expressed specific demands. Although there was no political representation at the time to recognize and articulate them in a coherent program, this does not mean that these demands did not exist.


For the peasantry, condemned by the former regime to live in conditions of extreme uncertainty, the reasons for dissatisfaction were numerous and justified. One of the most important of these concerned access to the land, especially the recovery of lands which had been confiscated during colonization and which the Tunisian State, perpetuating this dispossession, kept for itself instead of returning to the natural owners.

The right to the land is a recurring problem in our modern history. It has always presented itself in terms of confrontation with the political power. Before the protectorate, under the Beylical regime, this exclusion was pushed to the extreme: peasants literally could not become owners of the land they worked. The official properties of the Beys were revelatory in this sense. In ascending to the throne, each sovereign became ipso facto “Owner of the Kingdom of Tunis.” The entire country—the territory as well as its inhabitants—was considered his personal property.

Since the country belonged to him, it was entirely at his disposal. To establish his fortune and at the same time provide a sociological justification for his domination, he exploited a number of agricultural properties for his own benefit and distributed others to vassals, a means to maintain their loyalty. These concessions [iqtaâ] were never granted indefinitely. Whatever the Bey gave one day he could take back the next, to be granted to other vassals.

Peasants were not concerned with these events. They remained attached to their territories, watched as the landowners changed according to the political calculations or whims of the Bey. Having worked the land for generations, the peasants had no rights to it, and most certainly not the right to own it.

In these conditions where the monarch remained the eminent owner of the earth and humankind, the emergence and development of private ownership was possible only marginally, in the cracks of the system. Furthermore, this legal imprecision largely facilitated the spoliation carried out by the tenants of colonized lands. Because the original inhabitants did not have land titles asserting their rights, the colonial power deemed itself responsible for vacating properties, and distributed the land to its own nationals. A significant number of colonists acquired vast properties thanks to this sleight of hand.

In this sense, France behaved towards the peasantry exactly as did the Bey: the country belonged to France who could divide the spoils as deemed fit. By nationalizing colonial properties in 1964, Bourguiba reproduced this patrimonial behavior, even if, unlike the majority of former Beys, his objective was neither personal gain nor that of his entourage. He wanted the land neither for himself nor his own, but for the State, in the perspective of the authoritative modernization of economy and society. His despotism was not self-serving but “enlightened.” It was despotism nevertheless, a regime in which the political power was everything and the population nothing.

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I recall these historical facts in order to shine light on the current debate by emphasizing the fundamental difference separating dictatorship and democracy. For having lived it, we all know what dictatorship is. But it does not seem that the parties who govern us today really know what democracy is. Democracy does not mean the disappearance of the State’s role, but demands the transformation of it, in a way that the administration serves society as opposed to attempting to bend it to its absolutism.

Democracy is not conceivable without society’s autonomy. To begin with, this autonomy is economic independence which supposes the access of the majority to property rights. There is no democracy without civil society and no civil society so long as the citizens who compose it—or a significant number among them—are not the masters of the material conditions of their existence. Citizenry is never built upon exclusion.

In democracy, the State does not have the right to come between the land and the peasant who works it; the State does not have the right to forbid the peasant from being the owner of his land. In democracy, the State does not have the right to be a landowner who monopolizes the greatest proportion of a country’s arable land, no matter what legal or ideological motives it may invoke.

In democracy, when existing laws prevent peasants from accessing the land—and this is always the case in a period of transition, because these are laws mandated by the former regime—, these laws must be changed and not used to continue to repress those who contest them. By occupying State-owned lands, peasants do not break the law, they establish it.

A perverse system

Tunisia is undergoing a serious crisis which presents itself in all sectors of our collective life. This crisis expresses the failure of a development model, first and foremost in the domain of agriculture. Reflecting on it, we can see that the majority of our economic and social difficulties are related to the pauperization and marginalization of rural society that are provoked by official land policies.


  • This manifests first of all in the insufficiency of agricultural production itself, notably cereal production which is the basis of the common diet (bread, semolina, pasta, flour…). Our annual consumption of cereal products has risen to 30 million quintals. According to the harvests, we produce between 10 and 20 million quintals. Year after year, our deficit ranges between one- to two-thirds of our needs. We are therefore very far from food autonomy which we know is the first criteria for a country’s independence. These poor results cannot be explained by any single factor (pluviometry, soil quality, cultivation methods, public monopoly over the best lands, etc.), but by several. Among these, there is one whose role is paramount because it exacerbates the negative impact of all the others: pricing policies. Since 1956, the prices for the sale of wheat and barley have been controlled by the State. These prices are kept extremely low, rendering subsistence farming hardly economically sustainable or profitable and keeping farmers in a precarious situation. If rain depends on the sky, prices depend on the government. Why keep them so low? The answer is political cronyism. Since 1956, the government has prioritized the purchasing power of city-dwellers over that of rural-dwellers. It is not by chance that the explosion in December 2010 began in agricultural governorates.
  • Next, this manifests in the proliferation of the parallel economy. The continual pauperization of the peasantry creates a permanent flux from the countryside towards the city. Contrary to what official propaganda pretends, this exodus is not an indication of the dynamism and appeal of urban economy: it is a sign of the rural economy’s incapacity to retain and feed its children. Unrooted peasants leave the countryside but are not welcomed by the city, where the majority of them can neither house themselves nor find work. So they settle in peripheral neighborhoods which rapidly transform into slums. In order to survive they turn to activities in different spheres of the parallel economy: clandestine commerce, border contraband, the smuggling of illicit substances, etc.This illegal economy currently represents nearly 50% of the GDP. Initially a means of survival for populations without resources, the amplitude of the phenomenon now poses a major threat for the national industry, since the biggest products sold in the parallel market come from abroad (China, Italy, Turkey).
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  • The consequences of the State’s agricultural policies also manifest in another key area: wages paid in the industrial and services sectors, in administrative work in particular. The extremely low remuneration for working the land also enables the extreme suppression of wages in the non-agricultural economy. An example: the minimum wage today in Tunisia is barely half of the minimum wage in Morocco. Compared with Europe, this ratio falls to 10%.Pricing policies in the rural economy, notably for cereals, directly correlate with the pricing policies of salaries in the urban economy. In the context of cronyism, the idea was to feed as many salaried employees working in businesses and administration at as low a cost as possible, without regard for economic necessity or rationality. The same causes produce the same effects: pricing policies ended up breaking the development of our rural economy, and salary policies ended up breaking the development of our urban economy. In both sectors, the absence of decent compensation for workers gave way to apathy towards work. It further gave way to decreased productivity and output in general, and was the origin of numerous forms and practices of corruption to compensate for the insufficiency of revenues from official remuneration circuits.
  • The consequences are also manifest in the constraints imposed on non-agricultural activities given the cumulated effects of the preceding factors. The development of the second and third sectors (industry and services respectively) presuppose the existence of large solvent demand (consumers with a real purchasing power) and therefore an interior market vast enough to allow for economies of scale and to favor the increase and development of a range of businesses. Our population base is already small, about 12 million inhabitants. Given the number of unemployed individuals and the mediocrity of peasants’ revenues, the marginalized people of peripheral neighborhoods and the great mass of salaried employees (which constitute more than 80% of the population), the demand for industrial and services products is condemned to remain structurally limited. Our businesses compete in a tight market which prevents in the majority of cases any prospects of technological progress and long-term growth. Those which turn to exportation to compensate for limited domestic outlets run into other difficulties. Some succeed, essentially in sub-contracting activities, but all ultimately realize that it is nearly impossible to focus overseas in the long run without disposing of a solid accumulation base nationally.
  • These diverse dysfunctions of the economic system have created an environment that has given rise to the conniving and mafia-driven nebula whose wrongdoings can be observed today in a number of domains of our national existence. Benefitting from the protection of the political power and the fragility of social groups—peasants, sub-proletariat of peripheral neighborhoods, salaried workers, small- to medium-business owners—this nebula has progressively developed to the point of becoming a veritable gangrene infecting entire segments of society as well as the main institutions: central and local administration, the justice system, customs, media, public banks, etc.Having appeared in the 1970s under the Nouira government, the illness peaked under the Ben Ali regime, when the Trabelsi clan took the pilot seat. The uprising of 2010-2011 did not put an end to the phenomenon. It only disrupted it momentarily, before the current pushed back, worsening the economic chaos and subverting the population.

Reforms to be implemented

Reduced to its basic structures, an economic system is an ensemble of relations, scaffolding in which the pieces serve to hold one another together. We have seen how agricultural policy produced rural exodus and parallel commerce. We have seen how this resulted in low-wage policies. And we saw how all of these elements together contributed to blocking the development of our businesses while paving the way for a conniving and mafia-driven oligarchy.

I have just mentioned scaffolding. I am talking here about very special scaffolding, a sort of vicious cycle. Each error, each miscalculation at any given point in the cycle is passed on to and amplified at all the other points. It is this perverse system which was the true target of popular uprising. Protesters’ demands for the fall of the regime aimed to deconstruct the former scaffolding, to replace the vicious cycle with a virtuous cycle. From this standpoint, we understand the strategic nature of land issues—the origin of everything else, heart of the Gordian knot.
The economic foundation of the former regime rested on the planned pauperization of the peasantry. The foundation of a democratic regime must be a policy which, by restoring the rights of peasants, will make working the land profitable and productive for the majority. By starting to unblock things at this level, we will acquire the means to progressively unblock all other levels.

Land issues are at the heart of democratic revolution. By removing arbitrary monopolies—the monopoly of the State on the most fertile lands, monopoly of the State in defining the price of cereals, etc.—we are not only integrating the rural world into the market economy, but providing the demographic base necessary for its functioning. By developing agricultural production and improving peasant revenues, we gain the leverage necessary to stimulate increased production in all other economic sectors and to improve the purchasing power of all other social groups. Democracy can come about in a country where poverty reigns. It cannot safely endure if mass poverty persists.

The solution to the agrarian problem is therefore a prerequisite for overcoming the crisis of the former economic model, and equally for stabilizing the new political system. The obstacles ahead are many. Here, I have above all stressed the questions of State-owned lands and pricing policies for cereal farming. But many other challenges remain.

We can cite a number of other issues: the problem of water resources mentioned above, or of distribution circuits infiltrated by a mafia of corrupt intermediaries who cheat rural producers and urban consumers alike, and whose networks today dominate all regional wholesale markets. There the infrastructure problem: a lack of roads and railways, stocking capacity and cold storage, adequate means of transportation, etc.
Beyond these problems is the extreme fragmentation of little properties which are of primary importance in the restitution of State-owned lands. This restitution can in fact help to reduce the phenomenon, or indeed amplify it in the case of an indiscriminate distribution. Here we are faced with a situation in which we must find the best trade-off between two hard-to-reconcile imperatives: justice and efficiency. Only a strong government with sound public legitimacy can take charge of such arbitration.

The task before us—to launch rural Tunisia back into orbit—is tremendous. It requires a well-thought out strategy, a great deal of determination, pedagogy and, above all, the full-fledged mobilization of those concerned. Will the current government prove up to the task? Giving its initial reaction to the Jemna affair, there is reason enough to doubt it.

In reality, we are facing two possible scenarios: either we make an effort to listen to peasants’ legitimate demands, or we remain deaf and work to preserve the statu quo. In one case, the country will move forward in solidarity, in a responsible and disciplined way; we will consolidate, at the lowest possible cost, the material foundations of democracy. In the other case, we will divide the country, repression will exacerbate anarchy and disorder and perpetuate losses and delays. In both cases, however, change is inevitable. Change has penetrated the depths of society, and nothing and no one can stop its course. The rearguard’s combat will not keep the wheel of History from turning.


  1. Jemna is an oasis located in the governorate of Kebili, in the south of Tunisia. A former colonial property, the oasis was nationalized in 1964 under the agricultural decolonization law. Pushing for their rights to despoiled land, the inhabitants of the oasis negotiated with the governor for its repurchase. A promise for sale was signed, and a fundraiser enabled an advance remittance of half the 80,000 dinars requested. The contract was then denounced by the public authority, which transformed the money already collected into empty projects in semi-public companies. The oasis was then handed over to STIL subsidiary specialized in the production and export of dates. In 2002, after this subsidiary went bankrupt, the property was leased for 15 years to two private operators close to the Trabelsi family. The occupation of the land by Jemna’s inhabitants began January 12, 2011, two days before Ben Ali fled. Today, the government wants to take it back.
  2. In the same way that acts of vandalism (registered during the December-January uprising) targeting assets never targeted the rich for being rich but for being affiliated with Ben Ali’s immediate entourage, whose wealth was accumulated through extortion and rights violations which such an affiliation permitted.
  3. Aziz Krichen, La promesse du Printemps [The Promise of Spring], pp 388-416, Script Edition, Tunis, 2016.