By Max Gallien

Contrary to common perception, smuggling in Libya predates the current crisis. Carefully controlled by the ruling regime, it had been a part of Libya’s economic and political management for decades.

Therefore, smuggling today affects local communities in Libya through both its expansion, in some places, and its decline in others.

In addition, the effects of various smuggling networks on local communities has depended on the goods they transport, and their relationship with local power structures.

For the Libyan state, the smuggling of subsidised goods has been an increasingly politicised drain on its budget.

Gasoline has been particularly controversial: refined and sold cheaply at an enormous cost to the central state, huge quantities have been smuggled across the country’s land and maritime borders.

For local communities, especially in the borderlands, the economic impact of smuggling networks has been more complex.

On the one hand, they can function as employer in a time of economic crisis, as a window of social mobility, especially in the economic periphery. At the same time, smuggling networks often function as a root cause of that very crisis.

As goods are diverted from domestic consumption and towards smuggling activities, prices tend to go up locally, and may directly induce supply shortages of essential goods such as oil or gas.

In the past year, in the context of a worsening economic crisis, these effects have been triggering active campaigns against smuggling networks within communities, both on a grass-roots and higher political level.

The city of Zuwara, for example, made headlines in 2015 when its community pushed human trafficking networks out of its city.

In 2017, it was also the sight of increasing pressure against networks smuggling gasoline to Tunisia. At the same time, however, local actors are benefitting from the fees collected from smugglers at the nearby border crossings.

This relates to another crucial aspect: smuggling networks do not only have economic effects on local communities in Libya, they are also a crucial actor at the intersection of war economies, crisis and political power.

They are integrated with, or dependent on, militias and other local providers of protection, while control over key routes can provide crucial incomes to local and national political actors.

As local actors are vying for legitimacy, the question of how tolerable local communities find different forms of smuggling, and at what cost, will become more important.

This leaves some hope that in the future, local communities may be able to re-gain some influence over the effects that smuggling networks will have on them.


Max Gallien is a political scientist specialising in the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa, development politics, as well as informal and illegal economies. He is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, working on a project analysing the politics of smuggling in North Africa.





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