Between Tunisia’s Security Policy and Libya’s Militia Factions
By Hamza Meddeb
Along the border between Tunisia and Libya, informal trade agreements led to a tight-knit border economy. But political changes in both Libya and Tunisia have fundamentally altered the economic and security landscape.
The 2010–2011 uprisings disrupted a long-standing informal arrangement governing border trade between Tunisia and Libya.
Over the following decade, as Libya disintegrated into mutually hostile fiefdoms, Tunisia maintained its unity, transitioned from authoritarian to democratic rule, and increasingly shunned official dealings with competing Libyan power centers.
As such, grassroots cross-border agreements initiated by and between nonstate actors became the norm, albeit with the acquiescence of the Tunisian state. Yet these agreements have failed to constitute a sustainable mechanism for the trade that Tunisia’s eastern borderlands need for survival.
- Since 2014, Tunisia’s eastern borderlands have faced three major challenges: fragmentation of the security landscape in western Libya, a frequent interruption of cross-border oil supply caused by Libya’s economic hardships, and Tunis’s heavy-handed approach to border security. Together, these three phenomena have seriously disrupted the region’s economy, which was largely dependent on cross-border trade and smuggling, leading to sporadic social unrest.
- Realizing that it had to alleviate the pressure bearing down on the borderlands, Tunis began to allow ad hoc civil society groups as well as local municipalities to engage in grassroots initiatives and people-to-people diplomacy of the sort that resulted in cross-border trade agreements with localized Libyan power centers.
- Increasingly, Tunis began to play a participatory role in the forging of such cross-border trade agreements. This gave the agreements in question an asymmetrical quality, with the Tunisian side represented by a mix of municipal council members and state representatives and the Libyan side represented by municipal councils and leaders of local powerful nonstate groups.
- Tunis should strengthen and expand its border-related security cooperation with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), the main power broker in western Libya. This would serve to address the country’s security concerns more than isolationist measures would. The government should also work with the GNA to establish a free trade zone straddling the two countries’ border. This would imbue merchants with confidence and stimulate trade.
- Tunis should encourage border cities’ municipal councils to broaden their grassroots agreements with their Libyan counterparts to encompass cultural and educational matters, not just trade. This would deepen personal relationships, which are critical to the success of inter-city diplomacy.
- Tunis should oversee the often uncoordinated involvement of various official bodies—including ministries, the customs authority, and parliamentary committees—alongside municipal councils in concluding asymmetrically negotiated cross-border accords. This would increase coordination between border city municipalities and Tunis and also strengthen the latter’s ties to power centers across western Libya, enhancing Tunisia’s security.
Trade between Tunisia and its neighbor Libya, which had flourished for over two decades, faltered with the 2010–2011 uprisings that engulfed both countries. Worse was in store—trade declined again in 2014, when Libya’s internal conflict intensified and the western part of the country fell under the control of an assortment of armed groups.
In 2015, Tunisia, which had undergone a relatively smooth transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, enacted stringent border security measures. This development further impinged on the economy of Tunisia’s eastern borderlands, which had long relied on procuring cheap goods from Libya.
The resulting uncertain and fluid trade situation has given rise to grassroots cross-border arrangements, whereby Tunisian ad hoc civil society groups or municipal council representatives negotiated trade agreements with Libyan municipal councils and politico-military factions that wield power on the ground.
Such agreements stem from a mutual recognition on the part of borderland Tunisians and Libyans that bilateral trade is imperative to their economic sustenance and that some sort of regulation of the activity is needed.
Notably, the government in Tunis has generally acquiesced in such arrangements. For all its security concerns, Tunisia cannot afford to seal its border with Libya, as that would shatter its economy, which might in turn lead to social upheaval.
As for the Libyan factions that hold sway in the western parts of the country, trade with Tunisia provides an economic means of shoring up their hard-won autonomy.
Yet most agreements in question have turned out to be limited in both scope and duration. From the Tunisian perspective, improving this fraught state of affairs is imperative.
Libya shows no signs of merging into a unitary state, yet Tunisia’s already impoverished borderlands cannot endure the precarious and uncertain economic situation for much longer. The Tunisian authorities will have to strike a balance between their security concerns and the borderlands’ economic necessities.
CROSS-BORDER TRADE BEFORE THE ARAB SPRING
In February 1988, following years of closure due to political tensions, then Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Qaddafi reopened their countries’ shared border for mobility and trade.
Over the next two decades, Libya became a major trading partner for Tunisia. Official trade was mainly the preserve of Tunisian companies involved in agribusiness and construction.
However, informal trade played a more important role, with two channels of operation undergirding the bustling cross-border economy: a quasilegal trading route referred to as “the line” (al–khat), which made use of an official border crossing for transactions that were themselves conducted unofficially, and smuggling routes known in the region as al-contra, in reference to contraband.
Tunisia’s border economy was tightly controlled by the country’s security services, which protected politically connected merchants, smugglers, and currency dealers.
Permission to conduct trade, whether quasilegally through al-khat or ostensibly illegally through al-contra, was tied up with prospective merchants’ acceptance of an informal system characterized by clientelist relations.
Through “the line,” consumer products, household equipment, and foodstuffs made their way from Libya to Tunisia, principally through the Ras Jedir border crossing.
Customs officials often deliberately underassessed the value of these goods, charging merchants lower tariffs in exchange for kickbacks. Sometimes the goods were not registered at all, meaning that their value was never assessed, and the only payment made was a bribe from the traveler to border officials.
The arrival in Tunisia of imported goods from China and other east Asian countries in the first decade of this century and the transformation of Libya into a regional hub for transit following the lifting of international sanctions in 2003 boosted this illegal trade.
In contrast, the smuggling routes of al-contra were utilized by networks wishing to bypass Ras Jedir. Goods transported across the border in this manner included tobacco, gold, foreign currency, large quantities of consumer products, and subsidized gasoline from Libya to Tunisia, as well as alcohol and pharmaceutical products from Tunisia to Libya.
Al-contra was profitable but riskier than al-khat; in order to avoid running into trouble with border guards, smugglers had to establish strong connections with higher-ups in the security services. This was time-consuming—and costly, given the bribes involved. Merchants of limited means tended to choose “the line.”
Both al-khat and al-contra enabled Tunisia to maintain its coast-centric development model. Both channels tolerated circumventing authority, which served to mollify the local, demonstrably disadvantaged population.
In other words, rather than launch development programs in the eastern borderlands, Ben Ali’s regime elected to permit smuggling and cross-border informal trade in exchange for quiescence.
From a social and economic perspective, smuggling turned into a boon for a select group of unemployed or underemployed young men—whether high school dropouts, university graduates, or public sector employees—who in turn benefited the borderlands. Al-contra smugglers were required only to shun narcotics and weapons.
The dual-track arrangement worked. As a source of income for countless inhabitants of economically deprived regions in southeastern Tunisia, cross-border trade through both channels led to the sort of growth the state was unable to generate itself without a massive public investment program, which was not an option for a regime eager to keep its debt and budgetary deficit from ballooning.
The various networks utilizing al-khat and al-contra wove themselves into supply and distribution chains across Tunisia, forging links with markets and souqs in every governorate of the country.
Inevitably, what was by all appearances an informal (and, in the case of al-contra, illegal) economy became part of Tunisia’s formal economy. Bribes and protection fees collected by the security services provided them with an incentive to remain loyal to the regime, which itself received kickbacks as part of the arrangement.
The 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Libya disrupted the two countries’ shared border economy. New smuggling networks arose on both sides of the border, especially in Libya, where ascendant anti-Qaddafi forces froze out longtime local merchants and smugglers who had maintained close ties to the old regime.
Fierce competition between these new smuggling networks caused prices to decline until, by 2013, profits were negligible.
Yet many on either side of the border remained as desperate as ever to conduct trade. Their livelihoods, and those of many in their communities, depended on it.
Hamza Meddeb is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on economic reform, political economy of conflicts, and border insecurity across the Middle East and North Africa.