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 Need for a Broader Approach
Despite these difficult socioeconomic realities and this local resistance, international efforts have mostly focused on security-centric measures, such as hardening the border and cracking down on smuggling.
For example, under a $24.9 million grant awarded in 2016, the U.S. government’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) continues to install an electronic security surveillance system along a completed barrier that spans almost half of the border’s length.
Over the last several years, Germany has been contributing to this effort, providing some $41 million for mobile observation and surveillance equipment. The barrier, constructed by Tunisia with the help of the DTRA, is composed of a system of obstacles, including sand banks, water-filled trenches, and fences.
Adding to this U.S.-German effort, the European Union is engaged in a number of assistance efforts on border security. On November 26, 2017, the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) presented a concept note that outlines its approach to border security and management reform in Libya.
And more broadly, on February 14, 2018, the head of EUBAM, Vincenzo Tagliaferri, and the Libyan minister of justice, Mohamed Abdelwahed Abdelhameed, signed a memorandum of understanding formalizing their bilateral cooperation.
This agreement expands EUBAM’s jurisdiction beyond borders to “substantiat[e] a solid foundation for the Rule of Law in Libya,” providing them a broader mandate to assist the Libyan Ministry of Justice and its dependent bodies. The EU has given EUBAM a sixteen-month, $20-million mission in support of the mandate.
Additionally, EUBAM has held an Organized Crime Coordination Panel with the Libyan Ministry of Interior to coordinate the fight against serious, organized crimes, including smuggling and trafficking.
Engagement with Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) on smuggling is another facet of international border efforts. The NOC, a powerful stakeholder in Tunisia-Libya relations, has been vocal about the need to clamp down on fuel smuggling—both at the Tunisian border and throughout Libya.
According to the NOC’s chairman, Mustafa Sanalla, fuel smuggling costs the Libyan economy over $750 million annually. In February 2018, Ghassan Salame, the UN secretary general’s special representative to Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), met with Sanalla, agreeing to “work together to combat attempts by armed groups to gain a foothold in the Libyan oil sector and to increase transparency over Libya’s oil revenues.”
The meeting was followed in April 2018 by the NOC’s announcement of a major anti-smuggling initiative, which has included marking fuel to provide evidence of smuggling; encouraging international sanctions against, and prosecutions of, smugglers; and promoting reforms of the Libyan subsidy system.
Yet bureaucratic and political fissures have surfaced in this effort: on August 14, a subsidiary of the NOC, the Brega Marketing Company, dissolved a committee that combatted fuel and gas smuggling in western and southern Libya (underway since 2015) and fired its head, Milad al-Hajrasi.
This was followed by an announcement that the committee had in fact been an illegal front for smuggling and that al-Hajrasi was now under investigation—a move that provoked a raid by a Tripoli armed group on the Brega company’s offices and threats against the company’s director for his dismissal of al-Hajrasi.
Supporters of al-Hajrasi claim this firing was intended to undercut his growing popularity and political assertiveness (especially toward the GNA and NOC) after he declared success in resolving the fuel shortage crisis in western Libya.
Other Libyan observers speculate that pressure from Libyan factions involved with smuggling is at work. Regardless, the incident underscores the continued erosion of Libyan state institutions by political and economic fissures—and the growing threat to these institutions by armed groups.
Moving forward, local and international actors must supplement security measures with a greater focus on the informal cross-border economy that continues to support the livelihoods for many in border towns.
Without the participation and buy-in of local benefactors of this economy—including the cartels as well as residents—technological and physical solutions are likely to fail. Instead of simply closing the border, local authorities must distinguish between more immediately detrimental phenomena, such as human and weapons trafficking, and the small-scale smuggling of goods, such as fuel and cigarettes.
Moreover, security efforts should be accompanied simultaneously by on-the-ground policies to help relieve the socioeconomic pressure felt on both sides of the border.
These efforts could focus on providing alternate sources of income through increasing agricultural competitiveness, reforming land ownership, providing skills training, improving infrastructure, and investing in development projects. International actors can assist these initiatives by specifically designating economic assistance and foreign aid for border regions.
Although large smugglers wield considerable influence, the informal sector lacks channels of representation like unions or trade associations, leaving smaller traders unable to articulate and advocate their political or economic demands to the government.
This also leaves governments with little information about the informal sector. To correct this, border policies should focus more on promoting associations that support those actively participating in the informal sector.
Restoring bilateral economic relations will also be crucial. Some movement on this front has already been made. A Tunisian-Libyan business council was formed in April 2018 to further support and restore bilateral economic relations, and Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj recently announced their intention to resume direct flights and normalize bilateral trade.
Tunisia’s 2016 Finance Law simplified and lowered tariffs on many products, but some imported goods can still be subject to tariff rates as high as 200 percent—a factor that likely incentivizes cross-border smuggling.
More broadly, asymmetric subsidy and tariff policies in Tunisia and Libya must be addressed through increased bilateral economic cooperation that ensures the two nations work in tandem to improve the border situation.
Policy recommendations range from coordinating tariffs and taxes, to encouraging bilateral investment deals, and even to creating a regional free-trade zone.
Overall, much remains to be done in both the security and economic domains. Securitization alone will not only fail to curtail smuggling and trafficking but will have deleterious ripple effects on the livelihoods of border citizens.
And this could ultimately threaten regional stability as a result of increased competition among militias, violent protests, and even a resurgence of jihadism due to a lack of other economic opportunities.
International security assistance must be accompanied by a broader socioeconomic strategy and pay greater attention to reforming security institutions, tackling corruption, and, in the case of Libya, supporting national political reconciliation.
Katherine Pollock was a 2017–2018 junior fellow at Carnegie.
Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow, Middle East Program