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.
GRASSROOTS INITIATIVES—AND THEIR LIMITATIONS
When traditional politicking between state representatives, or “diplomacy with a tie,” falls short, grassroots initiatives often pick up the slack.29 This is very much what happened in the Tunisian borderlands once the Tunisian state became consumed with security matters and began to give short shrift to arrangements governing cross-border trade.
Beginning in 2016, when Tunisia’s heightened security measures first started to strangle the border economy, a variety of ad hoc Tunisian groups took it upon themselves to negotiate trade agreements with Libyan municipalities and tribal councils. These groups included the Tunisian-Libyan Brotherhood Association, the Association of Traders of Ben Guerdane, committees of civil society activists, and even members of parliament acting in a personal capacity.
Representing small-scale merchants who cannot afford a long-lasting closure of the border post, mistreatment, and high protection fees imposed by Libyan armed groups, these trade associations launched their initiatives under the umbrella of what came to be known as “popular diplomacy.”
In late 2016, for example, Tunisian merchants and truck drivers balked at new customs taxes levied by Libyan authorities as well as restrictions on the smuggling of gasoline. Merchants organized a two-month sit-in under the slogan “Let Ben Guerdane live,” and called on the governor of Medenine Governorate (in which Ben Guerdane is located) to intercede on their behalf.
Eventually, a delegation from Ben Guerdane, comprising traders, civil society figures, and even a high-status member of parliament representing the governorate of Medenine, went to Libya. The delegation from Ben Guerdane reached an agreement with representatives of nine western Libyan cities. The agreement was signed in Zawiya, a city on the northwestern Libyan coast, on January 2, 2017.
According to its provisions, Tunisian merchants were allowed to import at one time tax-free goods capped at 4,000 Libyan dinars (just under $3,000) per day from Libya and transport up to 150 liters (40 gallons) of gasoline through Ras Jedir.
However, Zuwara refused to consent to the agreement, as it was angling to become the Tunisians’ sole interlocutor on the Libyan side and also had its sights set on a security deal with the Tunisian state as part of the overall arrangement. A member of the Ben Guerdane delegation described the situation thus:
In January 2017, before heading to Zawiya, we stopped by Zuwara. Our interlocutors there made it clear that they have requests related to security issues. We said that security is beyond the scope of our initiative. We don’t represent the Tunisian state. We are a local and popular initiative and we want to negotiate a cross-border trade agreement. However, we offered to liaise with the Tunisian authorities and communicate Zuwara’s requests.
Couching its opposition in terms of respect for state sovereignty, Zuwara accused the nine Libyan cities that were signatories of hijacking the role of the GNA. Given that Zuwara controlled the Libyan side of Ras Jedir, its position was hardly without consequence. Moreover, Zuwara was supported by Libya’s national oil company, which denounced the agreement as an attempt by Tunisian authorities to “legalize smuggling.”
Zuwara’s opposition thwarted the Zawiya agreement. To meet the city’s security-related conditions, or at least some of them, the Ben Guerdane delegation enlisted the aid of the Tunisian government. The latter dispatched the ministers of civil society relations, public sector reforms, and regional development, as well as a customs official to the border region, in order to negotiate a security portion of the agreement with the Zuwarans.
The revised accord, an asymmetrical affair in which the delegation from Ben Guerdane and the customs official represented the Tunisian side and municipal councils’ representatives and tribal leaders represented the Libyan side, was signed by Zuwara along with the nine other original Libyan cities on January 17, 2017.
By this time, the Tunisian authorities had come to realize that, precisely in order for a security-oriented approach not to harm the economy or provoke social unrest, they would have to facilitate or at least allow regular cross-border commerce of the sort that would ease borderland communities’ increasingly desperate situation.
In 2017, a high-ranking security official floated the idea of a top-down solution, whereby the state would revive long-dormant Tunisian tribal identity in order to use local tribes as interlocutors with Libyan tribal and municipal councils. His reasoning was that, in the past, tribal agreements had proven durable.
For example, in the nineteenth century, a powerful tribal confederation in modern-day southeastern Tunisia, called the Werghemma alliance, used to conclude agreements with tribal confederations based in modern-day western Libya over issues related to water, pastoralism, and trade.
The 2017 proposal also took into account that Tunisian political parties and even certain municipal councils had expressed support for one or another of the main factions in the Libyan conflict, with Islamists backing the GNA and Arab nationalists supporting the rival coalition based in Tobruk in Libya’s east.
And it rested on the assumption that, conversely, the newly revived tribes of Tunisia would, at the behest of a central government that controlled them, maintain a studied neutrality when it came to Libyan politics. However, the proposal, which made its way into discussions at the highest security service levels but was never made public, failed to gain traction.
A state that had sought to weaken tribal affiliation in favor of an overarching national ethos hardly wished to revive tribal identities and endow tribal councils with political authority.
Instead of engineering top-down solutions, Tunis continued to facilitate grassroots initiatives, particularly by helping to resolve thorny security issues—hence the involvement of the aforementioned ministers in the revised Zawiya agreement. Meanwhile, grassroots initiatives to spur and regulate cross-border trade entered a new phase in 2018. That year, Tunisia held its first free and fair municipal elections since the 2011 transition to democracy.
Municipal councils, whose members were previously appointed to their positions by the governor and the political parties represented in parliament, were now elected by inhabitants of the municipalities themselves. Whereas the central government in Tunis was mainly concerned with the security situation and containing spillover from the Libyan conflict, the borderlands’ municipal councils, now staffed entirely by local, elected individuals, proved more focused on creating conditions that were conducive to economic activity and local development.
In one sense, the timing of the elections in May 2018 was favorable, as the aforementioned January 2017 agreement fell apart one month later. Throughout June and July 2018, residents of Ben Guerdane held large and spirited demonstrations. They blocked the approach to Ras Jedir, denouncing trade policies that they considered favorable to the Libyans as well as the mistreatment of Tunisian merchants on the Libyan side of the border.
The new Ben Guerdane municipal council, bolstered by its status as a popularly elected body, sprang into action. The first order of business was to convince the Zuwarans to renegotiate the agreement yet again, this time in such a manner that it addressed locals’ concerns.
The attempt succeeded. The Ben Guerdane and Zuwara councils, seeing eye-to-eye on several issues, made amendments to the agreement that served to placate the protesters and established a joint committee comprised of members of both bodies to ensure follow up. Yet it is instructive that—once again—the intervention of the Tunisian central government was needed for matters of security coordination with the Libyan side, including the reopening of Ras Jedir, which took place one month later.38
In the final analysis, what emerges from an examination of Tunisia’s experiment with grassroots cross-border initiatives is a realization that municipal councils and other local bodies in Tunisia are capable of finding common ground with their Libyan counterparts. The problem is that their agreements are invariably circumscribed in scope and limited in duration. Even if intended as long lasting, the agreements have turned out to be no more than a series of stopgap measures.
Their architects have come to recognize this drawback and the disturbing possibility that it is unavoidable. As expressed by a member of the Ben Guerdane municipal council, “We tried to clear al-khat, which is strategic for the city. However, building a comprehensive agreement with Libyan counterparts is beyond our capacities. All these agreements are improvised. They are short-term solutions to urgent problems.”39
CONCLUSION: RECKONING WITH THE ONLY VIABLE SOLUTION
In permitting grassroots initiatives by Tunisians of the kind intended to revitalize border trade with Libya and impose a measure of order on such economic activity, the Tunisian state demonstrated flexibility. It also bought itself time. Had Tunisia pursued securitization and a concomitant dissociation from Libya without allowing ad hoc Tunisian associations and municipal councils to strike their own trade agreements, its already roiling borderlands might have turned against the state.
Yet obtaining a reprieve from an otherwise certain conflagration is not a long-term strategy. Moreover, borderland Tunisians’ grassroots approach to facilitating trade with Libya has suffered as many setbacks as it has notched successes.
To cut the Gordian knot in which it is tied up, Tunisia would do well to adopt a triple-pronged approach. First, the central government should enhance its bare-bones security agreement with the GNA and also work with the GNA on creating a free trade zone in the borderlands. Thus far, Tunis has resisted building close relations with the GNA for fear of appearing to take sides in the Libyan conflict.
Yet neutrality need not mean passivity, and it has become clear that even if the GNA fails to bring all of Libya under its control, no group will dislodge it from its position as the internationally recognized, main power broker in the western half of the country.
With security guarantees and the creation of a free trade zone in which customs duties do not apply, the Tunisian government might succeed in enticing Tunisian business elites, who have become loath to participate in risky cross-border trade, to resume their activities.
Second, Tunis should encourage border cities’ municipal councils to broaden their grassroots trade agreements with their Libyan counterparts. The agreements could go beyond trade to encompass cooperation in the realms of culture, education, public health, and youth exchange programs. This would deepen personal relationships, which are critical to the success of people-to-people and inter-city diplomacy.
Last but not least, the state should oversee the often uncoordinated involvement of various official bodies—including ministries, the customs authority, and parliamentary committees—alongside municipal councils in asymmetrically negotiated accords similar to the Zawiya agreement.
This would synchronize border city municipalities with Tunis and strengthen the latter’s ties to power centers across western Libya, enhancing Tunisia’s security. Ultimately, such a triple-pronged approach would enable Tunisia to attend, in at least the most basic sense, to both its security and its economic needs despite a set of circumstances that threatens both.
EPILOGUE: THE BORDERLANDS IN A TIME OF CONFLICT AND PANDEMIC
Over the past few months, Tunisia’s borderlands have suffered a double whammy: escalation of the conflict in Libya following Turkish intervention in the country and the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic. Combined, the two phenomena have brought the border economy to a near standstill.
In January 2020, Turkey began sending men and materiel to forces aligned with the GNA, led by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj, to assist them in their conflict with a military coalition headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. This culminated in Peace Storm, a military operation to dislodge Haftar’s forces from western Libya.
By April, the GNA had regained control of the cities of Sabratha, Zelten, Regdaline, Sorman, and al-Ajilat. The power centers of Zuwara and Zawiya remained supportive of the GNA forces throughout.
Ultimately, the Turkish intervention enabled the GNA-aligned forces to recover lost ground and reassert their dominance in western Libya. Yet the conflict caused a precipitous decline in traffic at Ras Jedir (which at one point was caught up in the fighting) and worsened the already dire economic situation in Tunisia’s borderlands.
Before the conflict ended, the coronavirus hit. In March 2020, the Tunisian government announced a general lockdown to try to contain the spread of the virus.
That same month, Tunisia sealed its borders. Fearing a disruption of global supply chains and aiming to prevent panic generated by the confinement, the Tunisian government announced the doubling of strategic stocks of basic food, medicines, and gasoline. This ensured that stores did not run out of necessities—but did little to ameliorate the overall situation.
Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic and the escalation of the conflict in Libya have paralyzed the economy of southeast Tunisia. Predictably, the Tunisian government’s decision to seal the border with Libya entailed closing Ras Jedir. In Ben Guerdane and beyond, thousands of cross-border traders, small retailers, shopkeepers, informal fuel vendors, and currency exchange dealers were forced to suspend their activities.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Libya-based Tunisian workers attempting to return to Tunisia found themselves stuck at Ras Jedir. Security and quarantine measures relegated them to weeks of waiting at the border post before they were allowed to enter Tunisian territory.
Overall, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated economic tension along Tunisia’s border and showed the urgent need to strengthen the coordination between the central government and municipalities of border cities to more effectively manage security and health emergencies.
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.