Tunisia-Libya border crossing remains closed amid protests

The border dispute reflects long-standing tension over efforts to reign in a lucrative smuggling network.
Tuesday 07/08/2018
Tunisian customs post at the Ras Jedir border crossing with Libya, south of the town of Ben Guerdane, on May 3, 2016. (AFP)
Tunisian customs post at the Ras Jedir border crossing with Libya, south of the town of Ben Guerdane, on May 3, 2016. (AFP)

TUNIS - A key border crossing between Tunisia and Libya has been closed for nearly one month, disrupting business activity in Tunisia’s smuggling hub of Ben Guerdane.

Libyan authorities closed the Ras Jedir border crossing on July 10 after Tunisian protesters, angered by new trade restrictions, put up roadblocks, cutting off passage to the crossing.

“People are upset. Their jobs have been affected,” said Mohamed Ali, a resident of Ben Guerdane. “Everything has slowed down.”

After briefly reopening, the crossing was again closed on July 15 after reports of attacks on Libyan travellers. A meeting between Tunisian and Libyan authorities on how to reopen the crossing June 25 failed to reach an agreement.

The border dispute reflects long-standing tension over efforts by the UN-backed government in Tripoli to rein in the lucrative smuggling network from Libya to Tunisia. That trade, which includes the transfer of oil, heavily subsidised goods and other foreign imports to Tunisia, has long served as a key source of income for many in Ben Guerdane, a Tunisian border town, and Zuwara, a predominately Amazigh town on the Libyan side of the border.

“For decades, Tripoli allowed subsidised goods to flow through Zuwara to mollify the Amazigh community there and stabilise the area,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya researcher at the University of Paris 8.

However, since the outbreak of war in 2014, he said, there has been a concerted effort to crack down on the illicit trade, with Libyan authorities in Tripoli, backed by supporters in Zuwara, imposing restrictions and arresting a prominent fuel smuggler.

“Overall, the trend is a reduction in the overall amount of wealth,” Harchaoui said.

The slowdown has hit not just powerful smuggling barons and militia chiefs but regular citizens in Tunisia’s long-neglected south, many of whom turn to the illegal trade as their sole source of income. 

According to a 2016 study by Centre de recherches et de l'études sociales and the African Development Bank, Tunisia’s informal economy, of which the smuggling enterprise is a major component, employs over 1 million people, around 32% of the country’s working population. In Ben Guerdane, the number is even higher, with an estimated 70% of the town’s population depending either directly or indirectly on informal trade.

But while the parallel economy plays a key economic role in Tunisia, it comes with significant drawbacks –both for informal workers and the state, analysts say.

“The parallel economy in Tunisia is structured around three axes: informal trade, tax fraud and unlicensed work,” said Tunisian economist Chokri Jlassi. “All of this deprives the state coffers of important tax revenue,” including “income tax on corporations (tax evasion), tax receipts on wages (in¬formal employment), VAT receipts (goods without invoices), customs revenue (smuggling and fraud), consumption rights (tobacco and oil products).”  Informal workers, meanwhile, often lack job security, legal protection or medical care while facing high levels of risk at the workplace.

Max Gallien, a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics specialising in the political economy of North Africa, wrote on Twitter on July 24 that “smuggling has been a coping strategy (for communities in southern Tunisia) in the absence of formal state development. This has been tolerated and acknowledged informally by every Tunisian government since independence.”

“There’s easy gain and almost no stateside investment in logistics,” added Tunisian economist Hafedh ben Abdennebi.“We can’t even accurately (gage how expansive) the informal economy is.” 

Gallien, addressing the recent stand-off near the border, wrote on Twitter: “Blocking off the main road between Ras Jedir and Ben Guerdane has been a common strategy in recent years to put pressure on the authorities on the border crossing. The slogan of the current sit-in, '(you) let go, I'll let go' reflects this.

“Still this comes at a significant economic cost to the (informal) traders who largely make a living off importing goods from Libya,” he wrote.

In addition to calling for the resumption of trade, Tunisian protesters have requested development projects to revive their economy, hard hit by soaring inflation, a weakened currency and sluggish growth.

Libyan officials, however, say they are committed to clamping down on smuggling and that the border will remain closed until security measures are in place to protect Libyan travellers.

"The Libyan state is determined to enforce its decisions to tighten control on the border in order to prevent the smuggling of fuel and goods that are active in border areas on both sides,” Libyan border official Najmi Muammar said in a news release. “The Tunisian authorities have to comply with the border security requirements.”

In the meantime, passage to Libya has been limited to the Dhéhiba-Wazen border crossing in the province of Tataouine, which was reportedly backed up over 1 km. last week due to excess traffic. 

In Ben Guerdane, frustration continues to build among citizens whose livelihoods have been thrown into jeopardy and it remains to be seen when -- and with what conditions -- the border will reopen.

“It’s a dangerous game,” said Harchaoui. “I suspect that some people aim to close the border…to elicit a reaction but if that goes on long enough it could lead to clashes.”