I. Political and Historical Context

In recent years, Tunisia has attracted the attention of the international community for ‘sparking’ an event that spread throughout the Arab world in 2011 – the Arab Spring – often understood as a democratization movement. Nonetheless, characterizing the Jasmine Revolution in this manner is an oversimplification; as many commentators agree, it was rather a result of long-standing social and economic dynamics within the country, closely related to land and the extraction of natural resources. Despite Tunisia’s largely successful albeit incomplete transition, the root causes of the revolution remain pronounced and must be addressed if the country is to prosper.

Two key issues contribute to Tunisia’s socio-political landscape today. Firstly, natural resources, namely phosphates, oil, gas and land, constitute a crucial part of the national revenue. Second, the country suffers from immense regional disparities between coastal areas and southern landlocked regions, chronic unemployment (between 15% and 20%[2]), elevated levels of poverty and low quality of life in poor regions[3].

The connection between these two issues is seemingly paradoxical notion that those regions with the most natural resources tend to be the most economically deprived. The Gafsa region illustrates the gravity of this point: in early 2000s, while the national average unemployment rate was 15%, in Gafsa – where phosphate mining is the cornerstone of local economy – this number reached 40%.[4] No substantial progress has been made in this regard and, in early 2018, Tunisia was once again faced social unrest, which in turn disrupted the extraction of natural resources.

The country is caught in a vicious circle, coping with its unsustainable public wage bill (around 15% of GDP)[5] and slow economic growth since the revolution[6] while its main source of income and potential – the natural riches – are being blocked by incessant social unrest arising from differences between local populations and the Government. Analysis of this unrest is necessary to uncover possible ways of resolution.

II. Natural Resource Issues and Dynamics

The following section will progressively identify actors involved in the process, their interactions, conflicts, and ultimately the impact of the issues on the national situation. The five issues involve:

  1. the phosphate industry and the workers;
  2. the Labour Unions and their role in informalization of social movements;
  3. oil and gas issues;
  4. local farmers versus neoliberal policies; and,
  5. the problem of violent extremism, which has emerged in part as a result of these conditions.

Phosphate Company of Gafsa (CPG) and its relations with workers: the question of wealth distribution

In February 2018, Compagnie des Phosphate de Gafsa (CPG, Phosphate Company of Gafsa) announced a complete suspension of its activities, having been paralyzed by social protests that arose following the firm’s announced appointment of 1,700 staff, broadly believed to have been appointed as a result of clientelism.[7] Any resolution endeavours have thus far failed.[8] This event is, however, far from being an isolated incident and the social unrest has resulted in constant underproduction: it led to a 50% slump of phosphate products between 2010 and 2017.[9] Indeed, the February ‘incident’ merely underscores the structural, decades-long grievances between the workers and the CPG.

In order to unpack the notion of ‘social unrest’, it is helpful to understand the 2008 Gafsa crisis in context, since it is exemplary of the ongoing disputes between the phosphate industry and workers. It should be noted, however, that other cities in the mining basin, such as Redeyef[10], Moulares, Mdhilla or Metlaoui[11] experience very similar dynamics to the social protests originating in Gafsa.

In 2008, the city of Gafsa staged the largest uprising since the 1983 protests over rising bread prices. The uprising resulted as a consequence of the following discrepancy: between 2005 and 2007, the production of CPG rose significantly, marking great progress in revenues – DT 858 mil. (USD 358 mil.) in 2005 compared to DT 1261 mil. (USD 526 mil.) in 2007.[12] At the same time however, CPG, which is the main local employer, downsized by 10,000 staff between 1980 and 2010, and the region – in spite of country-wide economic growth – remains exceedingly poor while having to cope with extraction-related environmental damage, such as ground water contamination.[13]

The underlying reasons for the social protests, therefore, concern the lack of redistribution of wealth for local development, high levels of unemployment amongst the local population and low standards of living, combined with the negative environmental impacts. Protesters began hunger strikes, sit-ins and open rebellions sometimes lasting 6 months or more in an attempt to rupture the phosphate production. The strategy brought down 2008 revenues at DT 781 million. (USD 326 mil.) [14]

These issues remain just as pertinent today since the Jasmine Revolution is yet to bring about any substantial improvement of the situation. In fact, the frustration of the population is at least as pronounced as before the revolution, given that phosphate production has since further slumped as a result of ongoing social movements that have the very same demands as the revolt of 2008.

Oil and gas issues: similar problems with phosphate industry signifying structural shortcomings

Other than phosphates, Tunisia also extracts – to a much lesser extent – oil and gas in the south east, ranging between 50,000 and 80,000 barrels/day,[15] administered by the Entreprise Tunisienne d’Activités Pétrolières (ETAP). Employees of oil extracting firms face similar precarious situations as workers in the phosphate industry and employ similar resistance tactics to reach comparable goals: priority hiring of locals, greater distribution of oil wealth in favour of local development and improved living conditions. Most recently, in January 2018, Kebili was again confronted with social upheaval due to an allegedly unfair dismissal of ten workers. In reaction, local trade unions organized a three-day strike.[16]

Recurring issues emerged in Tataouine, Kebili and Kef, where the South Service Company produces 46% of national oil production.[17] The situation in Spring/Summer 2017 led to the deployment of the Tunisian military to protect oil and gas assets,[18] but the escalation nevertheless led to a complete shutdown of local oil processing.[19]

This issue is of relevance to the national natural resource landscape as it points to persistent structural problems related to governance and the regulatory framework, which is not exclusive to the phosphate industry. Furthermore, it also introduces new actors that must be dealt with, and thus complexifies attempts at resolution.

The ambivalence of the trade unions and the progressive informalization of social movements

In March 2018, negotiations in the Gafsa mining basin between the “sit-inners”, the trade unions and the company resulted in an impasse.[20] Interestingly, it is no accident that there are three parties to this negotiation, whereby “sit-inners” are not represented by the trade unions. In fact, this incident underlines a long-term trend of social movements in Tunisia: they increasingly lack strict leadership, and the opposition organizes at the grassroot level through local informal networks and social media, as seen during the Jasmine revolution.[21] This informalisation conceals a substantial problem for the resolution of the conflict over natural resources. The absence of clear leadership denies the possibility for stable communication channels and leads to such situations in which “whenever new hires are announced, (…) other unemployed men show up to take their place.”[22]

Historically, however, this has not always been the case. Tunisian trade unions (UGTT, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail) have played an important albeit unstable role in mediation of conflict between workers and the State. A deeper understanding of the ambivalence of the trade unions – whose support has oscillated between the regime and the workers – is indispensable for understanding today’s situation, whereby the trade unions retain enough political capacity to co-draft the new Constitution in 2014, but neglected workers must resort to informalized social movements.

This ambivalence can be demonstrated on several major manifestations that have occurred since the implementation of neoliberal policies in the 1970s. It should be noted also that the majority of protests occurred or began in natural resource endowed regions, and the dynamics between UGTT, CPG and the workers in the mining sector have been at the core of these issues:

  • In 1978, in reaction to State repression during the protest in Gafsa and Ksar Hellal, the UGTT called for a general strike – the first to occur since Tunisian independence. The regime would not allow the breakaway of UGTT from the State, and responded with repression, killing dozens and imprisoning thousands, including UGTT management.[23]
  • The 1983 infamous “émeutes du pain” came in reaction to rising prices of bread and wheat, due to cuts in subsidies as recommended by the International Monetary Fund. Over 500,000 protesters rose, supported by the UGTT, ultimately precluding the price rise.
  • In the following six years after 1987 and another rise in bread prices, some 2,586 strikes occurred, the majority however without the support of the UGTT.[24]
  • And finally, the 2008 Gafsa revolt, already described above, as a reaction to clientelism in the appointment of CPG officials, which was directed both against the company itself and against UGTT who was believed to take part in the process.[25]

Farmers and their opposition to neoliberal policies: the changing structure of the land ownership

The issues Tunisian farmers are facing, whilst not as pronounced today as the issues of the mining communities, have the potential to escalate quickly in the absence of a sustainable solution. These tensions became apparent during the Jasmine Revolution, and in sporadic small-scale protests reappearing ever since.

The main land-related dispute concerns the emergence of State support for large landowners to the detriment of small- and medium-size farmers. Tunisian agricultural policy is based on the assumption that local non-mechanized farmers cannot meet local food needs – let alone national ones – and, consequently, that food must be imported, and agriculture industrialized.

From the 1980s onwards, neoliberal policies have resulted in a large gap between small and large-scale farmers: “54% percent of farmers have less than five hectares – these farmers share 11% of the total area. Yet those with holdings larger than 50 hectares – a mere 3% of farmers – exploit 34% of the land area.”[27] These structural changes led progressively to competition over financial, land and water resources. Subsidies to local farming were cut and instead investments were made into large-scale projects. Lack of subsidies combined with artificially low prices of basic goods increased small farmers’ debt and further deteriorated their living standards.[28]

Naturally, resistance from small farmers was forthcoming. During the Ben Ali regime, farmers ‘revolts’ were usually brutally dispersed, and thus this grievance re-appeared during the Arab Spring, when some 100 farms previously run by the public Society for Agricultural Development (Société du Development et de l’Exploitation Agricole) were spontaneously occupied.[29] Occasional sit-ins for improved access to water have since occurred repeatedly.[30]

In terms of formal organization, this resistance confirms a broader trend apparent in Tunisian social movements, namely increasing informalisation and ad hoc mobilisation. There are however, several options for farmers to engage in formal institutions. UTAP (Tunisian Union for Agriculture and Fisheries) would be one such formal institution. However, its reputation was somewhat compromised by its affiliation to and support of the Government and investors. The second possibility for farmers’ political coordination is the UGTT, whose ambivalent and workers-focused character prevented it from having an overwhelming support of agricultural sector. The final ‘off the shelf’ option is the post-revolution Farmers Union of Tunisia (SYNAGRI). This latter unfortunately seems to lag behind the other two unions in terms of size and infrastructure.[31] Prospects for small-scale farmers thus remain rather negative.

Violent extremism as a potential consequence of the conflict over natural resources

Evidence of research inquiring into the causes of local violent extremism suggests that in Tunisia “socioeconomic triggers (alienation, discrimination, and stigmatization) and regional asymmetries are important predictors of youth violence and radicalization.”[32] Boukhar’s analysis posits that “most southerners believe that the political system is controlled by the north-eastern elite whose aim is to perpetuate their structural marginalization and exclusion.”[33] Indeed, although it is difficult to identify the root causes of radicalization, this notion of socioeconomic marginalization as its likely cause resonates in contemporary literature, as confirmed by a recent study conducted by the Tunisian Institute of Security Studies.[34]

Just as the link between socioeconomic marginalisation and natural resources has been suggested, a link between natural resources and radicalisation might be considered as well. This would certainly require more in-depth research, but it contributes to an explanation of why the southern city of Medenine is the largest exporter of foreign fighters,[35] or why the area around Ben Guerdane was chosen as a potential stronghold of Daesh-affiliated terrorist organisations, leading to an essentially full-fledged battle with the Tunisian security forces in 2016. Socioeconomic marginalization is, however, a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced strictly to extraction of natural resources. In order to depict this complexity, let us mention at least that the cities of Ben Guerdane and Medenine are both border cities with low State control or that many future foreign fighters are recruited from the capital, where natural riches are by far not the main cause of tensions. [36] The role the social issues stemming out of natural resources extraction play in radicalisation remains concealed. The point of this section is, however, to merely introduce the debate of this relationship in Tunisian context, as we woefully lack data in this respect.

In any event, violent extremism induces a new threat to national economy and the quality of life: it discourages tourism,[37] which is another big component of the State’s revenue.[38] In doing so, it exacerbates national poverty, increasing the potential for radicalisation tendencies. Tackling this issue, therefore, is vital for local prosperity, and it could be argued that the prevention pillar of the national strategy to fight terrorism should also assess more precisely the role of the marginalisation of communities surrounding the mining industry and address this issue.

III. Resolution attempts

The abovementioned issues are acknowledged by the State and some attempts to resolve them have been undertaken.

As far as the workers in the extraction sector are concerned, occasional negotiation processes occur, often with assistance or mediation of civil society organizations (CSOs) or trade unions. Nevertheless, these tend to lead only to limited or no results.[39] An example can be drawn from efforts in April 2017 in Tataouine and Kef where, despite long negotiations between “sit-inners” supported by the UGTT, CSOs and State officials, this endeavour failed to bring about the end of the protests. This is even more curious given that a “declaration on principles of development and employment”, which addressed many of the issues raised by protesters, has been drafted. This gravely puts into questions the mediation capacity of actors as well as political will to address the problems fully.[40] It should be noted that the latter issue of political will is increasingly called into question by many CSOs and trade unions, including the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handcrafts (Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat, UTICA) and Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries (Union Tunisienne de l’Agriculture et de la Pêche, UTAP), for example.[41] In any event, these endeavours do not appear to be sufficient to address the situation, especially if we take into account the reoccurrence of social unrest.

The issue of trade unions has taken a promising turn since the Jasmine Revolution as two new organisations have emerged: the Organisation Tunisienne du Travail (OTT) and l’Union des Travailleur de Tunisie (UTT). Nonetheless, UGTT remains the largest and the new unions did not reverse the general trend amongst protesters to organise informally.

The agricultural issues, for their part, have not been entirely neglected, but it is “food security” that preoccupies the Tunisian authorities, rather than conditions of small- and medium-size farmers.[42] Unsurprisingly, events such as the “national consultation” (2015) tend to concentrate on large investment projects and debts, as well as the consolidation of national agricultural production, leaving the issue of private farmers mostly aside. [43]

The way in which the issue of violent extremism in Tunisia is addressed has changed profoundly after the attacks in 2015. Two important evolutions should be mentioned: firstly, military and police crackdown on terrorist bases, and secondly, the creation of national anti-terrorism commission (Commission Nationale de Lutte contre le Terrorisme). The strategy of the latter is comprised of four pillars, including “protection”, “pursuit”, “response” and, critically, “prevention”, which aims to both prevent radicalisation and cut off the financial resources of terrorist organisations. The military response to extremism seems however to have gained greater momentum. A state of emergency put in place after the attacks is set to last at least until January 2019 [44] and, in this context, it is not unlikely that we will witness large-scale offensives and regular attacks of terrorist bases, mostly concentrated in the border areas. The battle of Ben Guerdane is of particular interest here as it constitutes a national symbol of this “anti-terrorist” activity and is often understood as a grand success. This portrayal should be nuanced by emphasising that military success is only of partial efficiency for any anti-terrorist strategy and needs to be thoroughly coordinated with wider prevention measures.

IV. Potential Entry-Points

It is in the interest of all stakeholders to identify a win-win solution to the natural resource conflicts. The losses in terms of national revenue induced by the tensions benefit neither the people, Government, or private sector. The issues are, however, intricate and numerous and necessitate tailored prevention and reconciliatory processes if a sustainable solution is to be found.

As outlined above, there are many simultaneous tensions occurring between workers and the natural resources sector leadership. For this reason, it would be appropriate to conduct a pilot initiative in one area and, based on those lessons, then expand it to other areas if successful. Of all the tensions mentioned above, oil extraction in Kebili, Tataouine and Kef may provide good entry-points.

One of the first steps in creating such a framework is to gather all interested stakeholders together to engage in a transparent and participatory natural resource-related assessment, empowering them bilaterally to engage in such a process if necessary. For the area at hand this should include representatives of the ETAP workers, ETAP, Tunisian Government, tabor unions,[45] local CSOs and community representatives. The presence of some external actors might add to the legitimacy and neutrality of the procedure, preferably from a non-profit or international governmental organisation. The final list of participants should, however, be most crucially a result of consultations with the stakeholders. The assessment will be designed to develop a shared understanding of the dynamics of the conflict, identify any historic issues that need to be addressed and to jointly delineate a way forward. The process itself should also be designed as a confidence-building measure between key stakeholders.

Participation, representation and agreement on the modalities of the process is key for the success of the assessment. First, parties must be equally represented; this point is crucial when selecting ETAP and UGTT representatives, for their existing and, importantly, perceived allegiances to other parties to the matter. Second, not merely balance of numbers must be kept in check, but external mediators must also emphasise the importance of some balance of capacity of all participants. It is essential that each participant can express their opinion fully and relevantly, and be provided with the required technical knowledge and/or non-technical skills to be able to engage in a meaningful manner. This applies to all parties who may have varied understanding of the natural resource conflict assessments, regulatory frameworks, and soft skills – such as communication, effective-listening and negotiation. Capacity-building, therefore, may be required in order to enable participation.

Once the participants have established a shared understanding of the dynamics, they should develop a road map/plan of action to address the sources of the issue as well as any injustices committed. It should be highlighted that throughout the process, a high level of legitimacy must be assured, on the one hand through the representatives chosen but on the other also by transparency; the constituencies of the representatives must be continuously informed on the progress and outcomes of the negotiation. Aside from inviting local media, it is also advisable in Tunisia, seeing the latest trends in social mobilization, to conduct a thorough social media campaign.

The outcomes of this process are likely to fall into four categories: enhancing the regulatory framework of the government and the capacity to implement and enforce the framework in a meaningful manner; building the capacity of companies to engage with communities through an improvement of non-technical risk management and putting in place grievance mechanisms; empowering workers and communities to engage in natural resource protection initiatives, to engage fully in advocacy initiatives, as well as monitoring and evaluation of company and government commitments; and creating initiatives to address past grievances, including through dialogue processes, compensation and the like.

Ultimately, the merit of this mechanism is that the chance of success, i.e. elaboration and implementation of concrete steps to resolve differences, is enhanced by the extensive interaction and joint work of the parties to the issue, which increases the chance of improving relations and eventually finding a sustainable solution. By empowering stakeholders to take joint and shared ownership of both understanding the conflict and designing and implementation solutions to address it, the outcomes are likely to be more sustainable and, importantly, replicable elsewhere.

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