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Department of Culture and Global Studies

Conference Report: Urban Violence and Security in the Maghreb

Conference Report: Urban Violence and Security in the Maghreb

In collaboration with the Danish Arab Partnership Project and DIGNITY - The Danish Institute Against Torture, GRS' Steffen Jensen hosted a conference on Urban Violence and Security in the Maghreb.

The conference grappled with how to increase the safety of ordinary people in North Africa. A line up of academics, politicians and NGOs from the region and from abroad discussed how to realize the Sustainable Development Goals around safety, gender and cities while asking questions about how local and international civil society organization and donors could contribute. 

Why is it important to focus on urban violence?

Henrik Rønsbo, Director of the Urban Violence Department in DIGNITY opened the seminar with a lecture on why it is important to focus on urban violence. He emphasized, that refugees in urban areas make up to about 70-80% of the refugees in the Maghreb. Therefore, the urban space is central when providing protection, prevention and security, which are the core areas from where violence is dealt with within DIGNITY. However, "the urban issue" is not per se about urban growth. It is about the urban spaces being a different setting as sedimentations of human history. Thus, the right to the city as a place for life is central in understanding the importance of urban violence.

DIGNITY's program manager Ahlam Chemali then explained how rapid urbanization in the Maghreb has lead to social transformations. Even though these transformations differ form place to place, there are trends in the region in terms of extreme inequality, which leads to social issues, organized violence (also from the state) and a rise in securitization. As a result, violence has become an integral part of everyday life for the citizens in the Maghreb. These social changes has effected the political level in the region, as well as the everyday life conditions for the citizens in the urban areas.

To address this problem, the DIGNITY-hosted conference dealt with how to enhance security in the Maghreb in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Steen Nørskov, journalist at DR and former MENA correspondent, was the moderator of the conference. He presented a short background of the region, with the Arab uprising as a social and structural signifier. Before starting the thematic panel discussion, Beatice Dunoyer, director of the grass-root association L'Art Rue in Tunis, held a short lecture on how her association works in the public space. According to her, reclaiming the city through art is an important part of reclaiming culture and bring about a more equal, just and inclusive society. Through the associations' vision of art as a predictor for development, artistic education has been used as a mean to enable young people to fight for their own legal rights. Hence, art has been used as a public manifestation for reclaiming space based on a will to change to city.

Thematic Panel 1 - Sustainable Development Goal No. 11 'Sustainable Cities and Communities' in Tunisia and Morocco

The first thematic panel consisted of Adnen El Ghali, Architect and Urban Planner and Ph.D. at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Mohammed Ali Ben Zina, lecture and researcher at the Department of sociology from Tunis University and Line Richter, postdoc from the University of Copenhagen. The panel discussed how to meet the Sustainable Development Goal No. 11 on sustainable cities and communities in a Tunisian and Moroccan context. The lecturers identified the core problems in obtaining this development goal in relation to urban violence: 


Ghali first presented his pilot project "Security and Violence in the Medina of Tunis", which is a research project trying to grasp the complicities of violence in the Medina. The results showed that young people increasingly become perpetrators of violence, due to failed integration in the school and a general lack of jobs. This lacking framework leads to a new construction of identity in urban areas and the recoupment in gangs, which also makes the youngsters a vulnerable group. This means the youngsters are both potential victims of violence and at the same time perpetrators of violence. Furthermore, police forces are seen as a mean of pressure on other groups, which generates a unhealthy distribution of roles. Generally, people become subject to an administrative form of structural violence form the police because of a low representation of municipalities, public services ect. in the local communities. This means that security forces are undertaking jobs that are not theirs, which turns the police force into an arbitrary form of violence.

Zina then presented his project: 'Tunisia's border towns and youth', based on a survey in stigmatized neighborhoods in Tunis. His research showed a precarious and vulnerable work situation, which has been repeated through generations. However, his research also showed how this is not the case with education: Illiterate people have been reduced and more people hold a higher education. This paradox can be explained in relation to the gangs and the problems with poverty, which means that violence has a huge impact on social life and in maintaining precarious work situations.

Based on fieldwork in Morocco, Line Richter held a presentation on her project 'Migrants Communities and everyday violence in a time of increased police-crackdowns in Maroccan towns'. The project investigated the issues of safe space in the cities and gender equality and access to equal justice. Her research shows, how West Africa is not only as a transit to Europe, but a place where migrants settle and live everyday lives. Hence, migration to Morocco is not only about stuckness, but also about migration moving from irregular to regular.

Thematic Panel 2: Sustainable Development Goal No. 5: "Gender Equality" and Urban Violence and Security

The second thematic panel consisted of Mériam Cheikh, Sklodowska-Curie fellow from the University of Edinburg, Naima Fikh, PhD from the Municipality of Kebili and Hajer Araissa, Post.Doc at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science in Tunis. The panel discussed the problems linked with obtaining the "gender equality goal" in the Magreb based on the social challenges in the regions urban areas.

Cheikh first presented her research project on urban changes, gender order and policing in the metropolitan areas in Casablanca through an examination of sex work in relation to new social transform and construction of masculinity. Her focus was how the current sexual and moral order has replaced religious norms with a proud display of non-conforming practices linked to lower-social class behavior. Assertive masculinity and violence with cultural expressions such as tattoos, alcohol ect. is currently a sub-culture in Casablanca, in which women also engage. Furthermore, within this sub-culture, women engage in sex-work to express themselves. Contrary to a lifestyle in accordance with religious norms norms against sexual expressions and relationships between sexes, these women believes sexuality to be a way for them to express their identity. 

The second lecture was held on violence agains women in Tunisia by Naima Fikh. Since the revolution in 2011, Tunisia has been subject to social transformation, which has contributed to violence against women. Fikh explained, how Tunisia deals with this issue on a structural level through a number of legal and preventive approaches. As an example, a new law which defines violence and its forms and legal framework surrounding it was implemented in 2017. However, despite a number of initiatives, inequality between the sexes is still an issue and violence against women is still happening.

Lastly, Araissa illuminated the issues sub-Saharan female migrants face when they arrive into Tunis. These women flee from poverty or persecution to Tunis to get a job or go further into Europe. However, when arriving into Tunis, they are often victims of gender based violence, and is not able to obtain a stabile financial situation because they are not legal migrants. Thus, they represent a vulnerable category in the urban areas affected by a number of forms of violence. Fikh stresses the need for help from organizations on a world-wide basis to secure better intervention and better preventive work.

Thematic Panel 3: Sustainable Development Goal No. 16: "Peace, Justice and Strong Institution"

The third thematic panel were to discuss the relations between public institutions especially in the security sector and the urban citizens. Souhail Belhadj, Post.Doc Centre on Conflict, Development and Peace-building in Geneva, Moncef Sliti, Engineer and Urban Planning at the Municipality Council of Ariana and Amine Ghali Director for the Kawakabi Democracy Transition Center  (DTC) held lectures to illuminate the topic.

Belhadj presented a pilot project on cooperation between citizens and institutions in Tunisia. His project identified a legal gab after the 2018 municipality law, which makes municipalities able to deal with security matters in an everyday context without consulting a higher institution. To overcome this structure, Belhadj presented a template which would allow states and the civil society to cooperate through facilitation of micro-local administrative elements. According to him it is crucial to find credible ways which leads to better local governance to overcome urban violence and insecurity. Hence, his template was also a feasibility study of better governance in a specific neighborhood.

Silti then accounted for how the contribution of local institutions could enhance local security to find a solution for urban violence. He emphasized, how legal and local reforms were important factors. Poulin further elaborated on the topic and explained, how the security sector can be seen as the heart of the democratic transition. Therefore, having the right reforms to secure civilians is crucial. According to him, lack of oversight in human rights violations is the main security issues the Maghreb face today. On a national level, this is embedded in a lack of legal policy framework, poor information about civil rights, lack of coordination of security service, nepotism and corruption. On an international level, conflicting interest and lack of coordination are the main issues. These are all structural challenges to overcome to obtain the development goal.

Round table - (Re)Thinking the role of Danish support for 'Sustainable cities and Communities' in the Magreb?

The conference was wrapped up with a round table discussion on how international donors and foreign aid can enhance the security situation in the Magreb from a Danish perspective. Børnefonden representative Morten Lynge Madsen and Danner representative Marie Diernisse Langested were engaging in the debate alongside the conference speakers. Henrik Rønsbo emphasized, how the best approach to create better security from a DIGNITY-perspective, was through global knowledge and international law. Also, realizing that security is not just about the state and the civilians, but that a variety of actors are involved, is crucial. These actors needs to be taken into account when dealing with security and violence. Steffen Jensen clarified, how there seems to be two approaches to deal with violence: One sectorial (within the security sector) and one territorial (within the scope of the city). However, according to Henrik Rønsbo, the two should be combined to incorporate a reform and social community approach. Thus, DIGNITY is trying to expand the sectorial reforms to combine them with new reforms and governance as well as taking the new security actors into account. 

Henrik Rønsbo wrapped up the conference by addressing the issues with the transformations and deconstructions of society which had been identified during the conference. He explained, how government structures has lately produced violence, which reflects a behavioral structure in the violence we see today, which we fail to solve today with the tools we have from the past (e.g the torture convention). Hence, it is crucial to find new ways to access violent communities. According to Rønsbo, dialogue between citizens and police is the only way to build trust, but the tools for doing so have been missing. However, local security communities seems to be a feasible solution, since it makes it possible to apply tools for community councils and hereby influence their agendas. This can potentially be the fist step in changing the existing structures and eventually overcome urban violence.

​The conference was held on 4 December 2018 at Aalborg University Copenhagen, A.C. Myers Vænge 15, 2450, Room 006, Building 12.

Andrea Borello
Student Assistant for Communication and Impact, Global Refugee Studies

Want to know more?

► Have a look at Dignity's publication series on Torture and Organized Violence

► See professor Steffen Jensen's research profile 

► Read more about GRS - Global Refugee Studies

► Read more about Department of Culture and Global Studies

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