Doing Research “Out of Vengeance” – An Interview with Aymen Amayed

By André Weißenfels

Aymen Amayed. Photo by Hichem Ben Boubaker.

Aymen Amayed is an independent Tunisian researcher based in Tunis. He is currently contributing to a research project about margins and marginality at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies at Ghent University. The interview was conducted during André Weißenfels’ MECAM fellowship on a research tour through different oases in Southern Tunisia, organized by OSAE (L’Observatoire de la Souveraineté Alimentaire et del’Environnement). In this interview, Aymen Amayed reflects on the history of conflicts between central powers and tribes in Tunisia and considers how this history is connected to different forms of social inequality and mobility.

Before we talk about your research, I would like to get to know you and your work a bit better. So, let’s start with a personal question: Why do you do research?

To a certain degree, I do it out of vengeance. My work and my research are shaped by my own identity. My family comes from a tribe that has been dispossessed of their lands, so I started working on questions of dispossession and on the relationship between central powers and the tribes. In Tunisia, especially before the revolution in 2010 – because it started in December 2010 in the inner regions of Tunisia and not in 2011 – it was hard to identify as tribal. Both Bourguiba and Ben Ali painted a picture of the tribes as troublemakers, as backward – they created a whole discourse around the tribe as a problem. And my research allows me to set the record straight. I grew up in the city of Gafsa and there were times when I was even ashamed to identify openly with my tribal heritage. When I grew older, this changed and I started to delve deeper into my heritage. My grandmother always made sure that I would not forget where I come from. She would tell me about my ancestors and how they died in the fight against the colonizers.

You are talking about the Fellagha insurgencies?

I don’t know if I like the term Fellagha. Because, at one point, it was used in a very pejorative way to undermine their legitimacy. The word we use normally is Mujahideen or Muharibeen, freedom fighters. They were rural fighters – many of them from tribes – whose leaders had mostly fought in Palestine. They came back in the 1950s and decided to fight for their own independence against the French colonizers. But they were also at odds with the political elite in Tunisia, namely Bourguiba. This is why many of their leaders were executed by the Bourguiba regime, for instance in 1962 when 13 of them were accused of planning a coup and were sentenced to death.

Why did Bourguiba think of them as a threat?

Bourguiba belonged to a francophone elite and in the 1950s he often found himself isolated. The Muharibeen were supporting Salah Ben Youssef, Bourguiba’s rival, who was demanding direct and total independence while Bourguiba was trying to organize a slow and partial independence. The Muharibeen thus undermined Bourguiba’s legitimacy and in consequence, the tribes were portrayed as a threat by the regime.

And this perception of the tribes changed after the revolution?

Yes. With the revolution people started to be more outspoken about their tribal affiliation. They participated in the revolution and began to reconstruct their tribal history, considering it as a heritage to be proud of. In addition, many tribes began to reclaim their lands. Members of my own tribe started to occupy the land that originally belonged to them. From 2013 onward, the state began to re-dispossess many of the lands that had been taken back by tribes in the aftermath of the revolution and ever since, conflict has erupted between the state and different tribes about property rights. In my tribe, people started to cultivate the occupied land in 2016 to send a message to the state that they were not going to leave. My father, for example, started to grow almond and olive trees there and is trying to start his own farm. This year we had almonds from my father’s land. It was not more than ten kilograms but they were definitely the best almonds of my life.

So how exactly does all of this figure in your own research?

I have to mention that I am originally trained as an agronomic engineer. But I didn’t like my studies because they were focused solely on profit maximization and this goes against everything I believe in. So, I was very lucky to meet comrades and researchers like Habib Ayeb, Max Ajl or Ray Bush and started to work with them. I was very active in the OSAE (a Tunisian non-profit organization working on food sovereignty) and assisted different researchers in their work on food sovereignty and anti-imperialist agriculture. Basically, I used the time supporting other researchers to assemble my own collection of texts and refine my research focus. Right now, I am working with Soraya El Kahlaoui on a research project at Ghent University. We compare different forms of agricultural dispossession in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

You said that you developed your own research focus. What is your main interest?

I am interested in the longue durée history of struggle over land between Tunisian tribes and different central authorities, from the French colonial administration to the Tunisian central state after 1956. Before colonization, people were managing their lands mostly as commons, which means that there was no private property. The first thing the French colonizers established in 1881 was thus the cadaster, the registration of land. If you want to register land, you need to divide the land. And once you divide the land, you tear apart the social structures connected to the land, in this case the tribes. These practices were continued by Bourguiba and then Ben Ali and I am investigating such techniques of government.

Could you describe in a little more detail what you mean with commons and how the social structure of the tribes was dissolved?

It differs of course, but generally people in the South of Tunisia were nomads, except those who lived in oases. So they would move around the lands herding sheep or camels. This is a group activity as you have to keep the flock together and protect it. And you cannot divide the land because everybody needs all of it. This is what I mean with commons: everybody had the right to use the land but nobody had the right to sell any part of it, nobody had property rights over it. So, the colonial administration and later the Tunisian state had problems with those tribes because it was hard to control them. In order to weaken the tribes, they attacked their commons, the land. They imposed land registration, increased military presence and created new cities to which nomads were forcibly resettled.

And these policies were continued after independence?

Yes, the Tunisian state just reproduced the same policy or strategy and it followed the same rationale. The state as a central power cannot coexist with other powers, it can only recognize itself as a reference of power. And Bourguiba needed to control the use of land in order to establish a mechanized and intensive agricultural regime that could support his plan to industrialize Tunisia. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, with increasing privatization, boosting productivity remained the sole agricultural maxim. State policy was focused on production and not on the people, the peasants, who had been living and working in those places for centuries.

So what changed on a social level?

When they dispossessed the tribes of their lands, the tribe itself – as a social structure – was partly dissolved. People migrated to cities to find work, but also to have access to schools and health care. There were a lot of promises connected to the cities and they created those cities, intentionally far away from tribal lands. In the South you find a lot of places called “New Something”: there is Matmata and there is New Matmata. And the latter is far away from the former. Consequently, most people who migrated there lost the relationship to their ancestral land, their relatives, their tribe. You move into the city and you move closer to the central state – you are more “Tunisian” once you have to get an ID and live close to a police station.

What I find fascinating is that a form of circular mobility of the tribes moving around their land was replaced by a linear and teleological movement from rural areas into urban centers. This leads us to talking about the forms of inequality and mobility that feature in your research.

Yes, it is mainly about inequality and mobility. The state dispossessed people of their means of production and handed them to capitalists. So, the struggle for land is a class struggle. And the linear movement to cities is a one-way ticket as people become trapped in the periphery of the center. This creates another layer of inequality: people who are dispossessed of their means of production find themselves dispossessed of their culture, of their affiliation with the tribe. When we talk about the suburbs of Tunis, for example, people come from all over Tunisia but nobody is really from the capital. You find yourself in a new place living next to the people who are from there and who often own the land you have been dispossessed of. The promises of work and a bright future turn out to be inaccurate and you find yourself stuck at the margins of urban centers. As a result, people start thinking about other forms of mobility, particularly emigration. This is obviously a shortcut but it is one of many processes of marginalization that push people out of Tunisia today.

Further articles in the #Inequality&Mobility thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:

André Weißenfels, The Promise of Education, 8 February 2022 

Call for Contributions: Inequality and Mobility. Perspectives from Tunisia / Inégalités et mobilités. Perspectives depuis la Tunisie, 1 February 2022

Citation: André Weißenfels, Doing Research “Out of Vengeance” – An Interview with Aymen Amayed, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.02.2022,

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