By Katherine Pollock & Frederic Wehrey
A lasting solution to insecurity on the Tunisia-Libya border will require a broad socioeconomic approach that includes pursuing alternative development opportunities and tackling corruption.
The Tunisian-Libyan border has long been a thoroughfare for the illicit movement of material and people. To bolster efforts to secure the border, the U.S. Department of Defense is spending nearly $20 million on advanced, high-tech sensors and cameras, drawing from a joint fund it created with Germany in September 2017.
Yet, like all efforts to date, this new endeavor is unlikely to address the entrenched permeability of the frontier and eliminate the underlying causes of border insecurity.
A singular focus on hardening the border runs up against deep-rooted socioeconomic realities in the region, where cross-border traffic continues to be a way of life and a substantial source of livelihood.
A lasting solution will require a broader approach that includes reforming institutions, pursuing alternative development opportunities, tackling corruption, and improving bilateral trade policy.
Tunisian and Libyan Border Dynamics
In both countries, informal activities represent a significant portion of the national economy. The Tunisian government—now a fledgling, semi-functioning democracy—has a strong incentive to capture that income by preventing cross-border smuggling and hardening the border.
However, in Libya, there is less incentive and capacity due to a lack of political unity; weak institutions; and rival, often predatory, militias jockeying for power to control the border and profit from informal trade. In fact, official and semi-official security actors are sometimes complicit in the smuggling.
Overall, because of the countries’ contrasting political and security landscapes, bilateral efforts to secure the border have been disjointed and piecemeal at best—with each side even deliberately resistant at times.
According to various reports, Tunisia’s informal economy accounts for between 39 and 50 percent of its GDP. And potentially more than half of the money circulating in Libya is in the informal sector. It is therefore not surprising that bilateral informal trade is significant for both countries.
The World Bank estimated it to be valued around $498 million in 2015, including approximately $200 million for cigarettes, $148 million for fuel, and $150 million for other goods.
While the smuggling of certain consumer goods (electronics, clothing, home appliances) decreased from 2013 to 2015, there was a dramatic increase in the smuggling of tobacco and fuel during that same period.
The markets for both are estimated to be large. For example, 40 percent of the 380 million contraband cigarette packs consumed annually in Tunisia originate from Libya. Contraband fuel traded at the border accounted for 17 percent of Tunisian consumption in 2014.
While the World Bank attributes the decrease in trade of certain illicit goods to border enforcement, other Tunisian policies have instead led to an increase in trade of contraband items.
Also complicating the situation is a reported lack of communication between Tunisian security forces and the military; the army has reportedly been reluctant to share its equipment and information (procured through foreign aid) with other Tunisian security forces, encumbering border patrol operations.
Further impeding the Tunisian government’s efforts are Libyan militias, who often directly profit from illicit trade.
Since 2011, rival militias operating along the border in Libya (estimated to number around fifteen) have thwarted expanded border security efforts, and competition over smuggling profits has increased in the absence of a unified Libyan government response.
Most recently, militias from the nearby Libyan towns of Zuwara and Zawiya have been repeatedly clashing over control of a vital border crossing in Ras Jedir.
The growing influence of Salafi groups in this border dispute mirrors the expansion of like-minded groups across Libya’s policing sector and adds another complicating factor to the border security landscape.
Another skirmish—Libyan Major General Usama Juwaili’s offensive on Abu Khammash, a Libyan town near Ras Jedir—caused the border crossing to close in January 2018 for at least twenty-four hours and led some Libyan border officials to seek refuge in Tunisia.
After a ceasefire and several days of negotiation, Juwaili and Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) reached an agreement that handed over control to official government authorities but required that Juwaili provide oversight and integrate local armed groups into the effort.
The agreement, however, has largely not been implemented on the ground and has caused significant tension within Zuwara. The mayor, Hafez Ben Sassi, has accused Juwaili of forcibly taking control from ethnic Amazigh forces from Zuwara and has questioned if the GNA had in fact ordered the attack.
Juwaili himself told a Libyan radio station that his offensive was part of a larger plan to establish “state control” over the entire road leading to the border.
In separate statement, another Libyan military officer, Brigadier General Hafez al-Ghali, argued that the Presidential Guard, a GNA-aligned military unit, had actually previously appointed him to protect the crossing in 2016.
What seems likely is that the murky incident at Abu Khammash was an abortive attempt by the GNA’s Presidential Guard to use Juwaili and his forces to project its authority on the border, demonstrating once again how local rivalries and political disarray on the Libyan side negatively impact border stability.
Further destabilizing the situation is the counterterrorism narrative surrounding border enforcement, which has enabled local militias to consolidate their power on the pretext of fighting transnational jihadism.
During one of the authors’ visit to the town of Sabratha—following the early 2016 U.S. strike on a self-proclaimed Islamic State training facility run by a Sabrathan local—a Libyan militia commander named Ahmed al-Dabbashi (or “al-Ammu”) rallied with rival clans and armed groups against Islamic State fighters inside the town and its environs.
The anti–Islamic State offensive helped make al-Ammu the preeminent smuggling boss in the area (until he fled in late 2017 and was later targeted in June 2018 by UN Security Council–imposed sanctions for his involvement in human trafficking).
Sabratha’s battles against the Islamic State also cast suspicion on the Tunisian expatriate worker community because many Islamic State fighters in Sabratha were Tunisian nationals.
However, despite this unstable environment, many Tunisian and Libyan residents living along the border do not view the broadening security efforts as a positive development.
For example, many respondents in a 2016 survey of inhabitants from the Tunisian border towns Ben Guerdane and Dehiba viewed the tightening of restrictions and the absence of local development as a greater threat than jihadism.
This is likely because 90.2 percent of people in Ben Guerdane and 89.6 percent in Dehiba consider the border a financial resource. Both Tunisian and Libyan residents’ antipathy toward border enforcement and closures has given rise to frequent protests, anger, and even violence.
As a 2017 World Bank report notes, the main means of livelihood in Tunisia-Libya border towns are contraband goods and informal trade, with alternative jobs or sources of income being difficult to find.
Demonstrating this frustration, in June 2018, several Tunisian protesters blocked Ben Guerdane’s main road, which trucks use to export goods to Libya, citing mistreatment at the Ras Jedir border, as well as “unfair” Libyan trade policies.
In July, as these protests turned to harassment and attacks on Libyans transiting Ben Guerdane, the Libyan government closed the border, raising diplomatic tensions with Tunisia.
As of mid-August, the municipalities of Ben Guerdane and Zuwara were engaged in talks to re-open the border, which included forming a bilateral committee.
The latest closure follows a similar incident in early 2017, when Tunisian protesters disrupted border traffic in Ben Guerdane after Libyan efforts to clamp down on border smuggling, creating what local Tunisians described as a “narrowing” of their ability to trade.
Video footage capturing some of these protests, which lasted for weeks, shows Tunisians setting tires on fire and throwing stones at security forces who responded with tear gas.
Traders in Ben Guerdane even engaged in a sit-in for several months, hoping to put pressure on authorities by suspending business and economic activities.
In an attempt to quell the protests, Tunisian and Libyan border authorities reached an agreement after five days of talks in Libya. However, other Libyan actors not involved in the talks quickly and publicly rejected the agreement, claiming that it gave Tunisian traders a significant financial advantage over Libyans by effectively legalizing smuggling at the Ras Jedir border crossing.
Katherine Pollock was a 2017–2018 junior fellow at Carnegie.
Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow, Middle East Program