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.
TUNISIA’S EASTERN BORDERLANDS: NO SHORTAGE OF BAD NEWS
Since 2014, when Libya effectively crumbled as a unitary state, Tunisia’s borderlands have faced three major, and increasingly overlapping, challenges.
First, the fragmentation of the security landscape in western Libya led to periodic fighting between various groups over the control of border crossings and smuggling routes. Such fighting significantly derailed trade, with particularly adverse consequences for Tunisian merchants who were subject to the whims of the militia that controlled the Libyan side of Ras Jedir. These merchants often fell prey to extortion at the hands of other militias controlling smuggling routes.
Second, Libya’s ongoing banking crisis, which erupted in 2016 due to falling oil production and revenues, decreased Libyans’ purchasing power, caused a spike in corruption, and made Tunisian merchants and traders even more vulnerable to shakedown operations at the hands of Libyan militias.
Third, the heavy-handed approach to border security pursued by Tunisian authorities intent on preventing a spillover of the Libyan conflict made several smuggling routes impassable and led to a prolonged closure of Ras Jedir, choking off both traditional channels of trade—al-contra and “the line.”
The result of all this is a ravaged border economy and an impression among many Tunisian merchants and smugglers that Tunis is focused on the security of the state more than the security of the state’s citizens. Trade with Libya, on which so many inhabitants of the borderlands have traditionally depended, has become prohibitively costly, and ordinary Tunisians do not have the means to protect themselves and their merchandise from extortionist armed factions.
Only well-connected merchants and smugglers have managed to operate unhindered during these past several years, a phenomenon that has further concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a select few.
BORDER CROSSINGS, IDENTITY POLITICS, AND MILITIAS
In western Libya, the fall of Qaddafi and the simultaneous dissolution of central authority led many local communities to jockey for their positions, aiming to become power centers and secure access to economic resources. Competition over access to the border reactivated historical rivalries, in particular between Arabs and Amazigh, an ethnically indigenous subgroup that predominates in several cities and towns near the border with Tunisia.
Qaddafi’s regime had used border trade to consolidate its power, co-opting and privileging certain tribes and social groups over others. Predictably, such a divide-and-rule strategy gave rise to grievances among sectors of the population that were denied a cut of the spoils. The community discriminated against most consistently in this fashion was the Amazigh.
Following the toppling of Qaddafi, the Amazigh city of Zuwara, which was politically marginalized and excluded from the border economy throughout his reign, came to the fore. Zuwara’s militia seized control of Ras Jedir and officially annexed the border post to the administrative zone under the control of the municipality of Zuwara.
This constituted an important step toward establishing the city as a true power center in the increasingly fractious country. The rise of Zuwara, which is nominally under the authority of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) but enjoys a wide measure of autonomy, had a negative effect on the livelihoods of merchants and smugglers from nearby Tunisian towns such as Ben Guerdane.
As explained by a wholesaler from Ben Guerdane, the redrawing of the politico-military landscape has reshaped the border economy. “Our business partners have always been Arabs from the small cities of the west: Zelten, al-Jamil, and Reqdaline,” he said. “The problem now is that Zuwara is controlling the border post.
Those who were influential in business are now marginalized militarily and those who now control the ground militarily want to take their revenge in business. This is creating tensions in Libya and inevitably impacting us.”18 In order to do business with their traditional trading partners from Zelten, al-Jamil, Reqdaline, and elsewhere, Tunisian Arab merchants have to contend with the fact that the Amazigh Zuwarans, with whom their relations are strained, control the border post.
In fact, control of border crossings has become a strategic element of Amazigh sociopolitical advancement. In Nalut, another Amazigh town, the local militia has taken over the nearby Dhehiba-Wazen border crossing. (Ras Jedir and Dhehiba-Wazen are the only border crossings between Tunisia and Libya, with the former accounting for much more traffic than the latter.)
In the same vein, Amazigh armed groups have set up checkpoints along smuggling routes. To counter Amazigh control over Ras Jedir and Dhehiba-Wazen, a group of western Arab cities in Libya led by Zintan toyed with the notion of opening a new crossing on land given to them by the Qaddafi regime and located along the border. However, concluding that it would lead to prolonged and potentially ruinous conflict, the cities ended up shelving the idea.
For many Tunisian merchants, the problem transcended Zuwara. Those who used to operate between Ben Guerdane and Zelten, a Libyan city located 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the Tunisian border, for example, now had to pass through several checkpoints controlled by various Libyan militias, both Arab and Amazigh, along the main route.
Extortion of Tunisian merchants quickly became common at such checkpoints, and the risks were high; merchants could have lost their goods and even their lives. The number of checkpoints reflected the extent of conflict near the border, control of which was actively sought by the various armed factions operating in the area. That such groups frequently rebranded themselves and changed their alliances only confused matters.
INTERRUPTION OF OIL SUPPLY
Tunisia’s eastern borderlands have suffered a great deal from the frequent interruption of oil production in Libya. Since 2014, Libyan militias have on several occasions fought for control of oil installations, causing production companies to suspend operations for prolonged periods.
The fall of oil prices since 2014 caused a further decline in state revenues, a sharp decrease in foreign exchange reserves, and a monetary crisis. Cash-strapped armed groups began to use fraudulent letters of credit to transfer money outside Libya without supplying the Libyan market with goods, which has undermined the border economy and drastically limited opportunities for Tunisian traders and smugglers.
Shortages of goods, inflation, and the monetary crisis combined to disrupt Libya’s economy and as a consequence further hindered Tunisian-Libyan trade.
At times, decisions by the Tripoli-based GNA, which Tunis recognizes as the legitimate government of Libya, have exacerbated borderland Tunisians’ woes. In 2017 the GNA approved the establishment of a security force by Libya’s National Oil Corporation to combat the smuggling of gasoline across the border. (Zuwara, which enjoys a steady stream of revenue thanks to seaborne smuggling of gasoline to Malta and Italy, did not object to the development.)
The force had some success, which created a gasoline shortage throughout the southeastern Tunisian borderlands. In June 2018, having reached the end of their tether, Tunisian merchants and smugglers staged a series of mass protests against trade disruptions like the deterioration of the security situation on the Libyan side, which caused frequent racketeering and seizure of goods; mistreatment at the hands of armed groups; the decisions of the GNA; and Tunisian authorities’ neglect of the borderlands.
In Ben Guerdane, protesters damaged vehicles with Libyan license plates and blocked the road to the Ras Jedir crossing, which the Tunisian authorities subsequently closed. It took several days to restore order, but even then the problem was not resolved. One smuggler on the Tunisian side explained it in the following manner: “Gasoline from Libya can cost 40 DT [Tunisian dinar], the same price as at a gas station. So we can’t work. For us there is simply no market.”
SECURITIZATION AT THE EXPENSE OF THE LOCAL ECONOMY
Tunisia’s increased security measures have adversely affected borderland communities dependent on both trade through Ras Jedir and smuggling for their survival. With each and every security incident that bore a connection to Libya, the Tunisian authorities further restricted cross-border activity.
For example, in 2013, a series of assassinations of Tunisian political figures by Tunisian perpetrators who fled to Libya prompted Tunis to ramp up security measures in the border regions. The Tunisian military was even tasked with establishing a buffer zone around Tunisia’s southern tip, where its borders with Libya and Algeria nearly converge.
A turning point in Tunisia’s security policies toward Libya occurred in 2015. In mid-June of that year, Tunisian consular staff in Tripoli were kidnapped by a Libyan militia in response to the arrest of one of its leaders in Tunis. Although Tunisia did not go so far as to seal the border—Ras Jedir remained open—it put a stop to all nonessential movement of people and goods from Libya into its territory.
A series of terrorist attacks in late 2015 led the Tunisian government to shore up security even further by digging a ditch along half of the country’s 500-kilometer (300-mile) border with Libya. This development shut off several smuggling routes.
Tunisia officially closed the Ras Jedir border crossing in February 2016, prompted by the deterioration of the security situation in Libya following a series of U.S. bombings on a training camp run by the self-proclaimed Islamic State group in the northern Libyan city of Sabrata. The decision proved to be one step too far as massive protests erupted in Ben Guerdane.
Shortly thereafter, a more organized general strike was called to protest government neglect, growing corruption among Tunisian security forces, and the lack of cross-border arrangements with Libyan militias to ensure both trade and protection for Tunisian merchants in Libya.
At first, the authorities in Tunis seemed inclined to relent. However, as though to confirm their worst fears, a jihadi group from Libya launched an armed attack on Ben Guerdane in March.
The group was repelled but at significant loss to the town’s security forces and civilians. The Ras Jedir crossing was not reopened until June 2016, and even then only in a limited capacity. There seemed to be no end to the local population’s economic plight.
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.