Part 2 of the feature on the tug-of-war between institutional entrepreneurs and the opponents of a contested commons at the Jemna Oasis, Tunisia. Based on the research of Professors Rachida Justo of IE Business School, Karim Ben‑Slimane, ISG Paris, and Nabil Khelil, UNICAEN.
Institutional Entrepreneurs’ (IEs’) manoeuvres were met with countermoves from three categories of opponents: the state and its official representatives; legalists (public figures, politicians, journalists, lawyers, and university professors) who took positions in the media against Jemna; and the two entrepreneurs who previously managed the oasis. Using a three-pronged “demonizing the commons” strategy against the IEs, they dramatized the commons as a threat to the economy and private property, portraying the commons as rebellion against the state and the nation, and using law enforcement and punishment.
The opposing force opened fire by interpreting the eviction of the two private entrepreneurs as dangerous proof of the state’s inability to protect private property and as a harm to the environment of doing business in Tunisia. Moreover, after the revolution, Tunisia sought funds from foreign investors to boost the economy and mitigate the challenges of joblessness and declining growth. It was asserted that Jemna’s change in property status would foil investors and hamper private initiative.
Mutiny on the state
The state and the legalists also framed Jemna’s community initiatives as rebellion against the State and a threat to the unity of the nation. They argued that the community’s repossession of the land was illegal and should be considered dangerous, even going ahead to compare the activity to the Karameta rebellion movement which had a strong negative connotation among Arabs and was considered a major sin.
For many other legalists Jemna was a threat to the central power of the state, setting a dangerous precedent for other communities who would defy the state and claim rights over public properties.
In trouble with the law
The State considered the establishment of a commons in Jemna as an offense to its authority and prestige. This, along with thousands of other law infringements that occurred in the revolution’s aftermath, represented a dangerous symbolic attack on public administration. Most Tunisian state officials were determined to end the occupation of the oasis. For them, Jemna became a symbol of resistance and disobedience against the state.
Accordingly, the government used its coercive power to take over the land and stop the ASOJ. For instance, when the ASOJ issued a call for tenders to sell the oasis harvest, the state froze the association’s bank accounts as well as those of its commercial partners and sued its members.
Bring to terms
After a long struggle between the proponents and opponents of the commons logic, the contest over the Oasis of Jemna reached a settlement, with the state recognizing the right of the ASOJ to manage the oasis on behalf its community, while pointing to the urgency of finding a legal status for the new commons. Jemna was hailed as an exemplar of community involvement in decentralized management.
The absence of legal recognition, however, raised two concerns for the community. The first was related to the community’s freedom to self-manage the commons and to engage in transactions with employees, suppliers, and banks – indeed, the law prevents the ASOJ from launching investment projects or registering employees in the social security system. A second concern was the growth and future development of the oasis. Because it lacked legal status, the association had been unable to increase the social value of the commons and further create job opportunities in the village.
With this legal barrier, the Jemna experience is considered as a half-success by many in the community. And the ASOJ, with the support of social activists and experts in social business, is involved in an ongoing struggle that goes beyond the unique case of the oasis and involves the full recognition of the commons’ character of collective lands that had been occupied by the state.
The IEs used several arrows in their quiver to reach their goal of posing the commons logic as a superior alternative to non-commons logics such as the market or state. Firstly, their strategy of employing the power of memory by reminding the community of the historical status of the oasis as a commons and recalling the injustice endured by its members proved to be very effective.
To further idealize the commons logic, IEs made links to broader moral and social issues. The Jemna experience was associated with anti-government protests such as the Arab Spring and fighting corruption involving both state and market agents. This linkage infused the commons with new values that allowed its broad framing as an ideal alternative to state property and private property, garnering support outside the community’s boundaries.
Additionally, IEs’ performance rhetoric framed the commons not only as a better way to solve social issues, but also as an efficient way of creating economic value. Last but not the least, IEs aroused a renewed sense of pride within the community by mobilizing old narratives about Jemna’s unique history and culture.
However, Prof. Justo and her colleagues suggest that IEs’ idealization efforts are more likely to take dominance when two conditions are met: first, a weak state, and second, a community with strong internal and external ties supporting its commoning initiative. In the former, certain jolts to the system in the form of riots force citizens to become self-organized and become the guardians of their own neighbourhoods. When the state steps backward and its power is weakened, communities take a lunge forward to launch commoning processes.
Yet, a weak state is not sufficient, in itself, to ensure the settlement of commons logics in contested commons. Commons logic is more likely to win when relationships within the community are strong and cohesive. Strong relationships are key to prevent the dislocation of the community should a few individuals decide to act upon their own interests to the detriment of the community.
Also, importantly, the success of a commons logic stems from strong relationships built outside the community. When the commons benefits go beyond the community’s boundaries, and beyond social impact to also create economic value, the commons logics is more likely to trump non-commons logics.
Even with all these efforts, the emergence and consolidation of commoning initiatives may still face the wrath of severe legal barriers, frustrating negotiations with powerful actors, and ethical dilemmas, as commoning entrepreneurs attempt to convince others that the organization is legitimate even though it has not been legalized.
As such, the history of the Jemna Oasis is marked by multiple attempts from its indigenous inhabitants to re-establish the pre-existing common property regime. Each time, however, such efforts have been exposed to prevailing frictions between ethical considerations and the country’s regulatory framework. The Jemna Oasis exemplifies the constant balancing act between legitimacy and legality that many communing initiatives try to achieve in order to survive. And the experience is rich in lessons.
- Link up with Prof. Rachida Justo via LinkedIn
- Go further and watch Prof. Rachida Justo’s video insights on the Jemna Oasis case
- Read a related book – The Contested Commons: Conversations between Economists and Anthropologists
- Discover IE Business School, Madrid
- Study an online EMBA at IE Business School
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