Unrest provokes Italian scare over trans-Tunisian gas pipeline

Incident led to Italian pressure on Mechichi to protect vital installations in Kasserine.
Monday 21/12/2020
A combination photo of Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (left) and his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte. (AFP/ REUTERS)
A combination photo of Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (left) and his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte. (AFP/ REUTERS)

TUNIS – An Arab diplomat revealed what he described as “tremendous” pressure being exerted on Tunisia by Italy and Algeria regarding the protection of the Algerian gas pipeline to Italy, which passes through Tunisia.

Speaking to The Arab Weekly, the diplomat said that growing social protests in the country have increased the pressure put on Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.

The protests took a dangerous turn when demonstrators tried to storm the headquarters of the gas compressor station of the Trans-Tunisian Pipeline Company (SERGAZ) in the Majel Bel-Abbas region in the western province of Kasserine.

The diplomat emphasised that the development “terrified” Italian authorities and also raised concerns in Algiers. SERGAZ is in charge of ensuring the proper operation of the portion on Tunisian territory of the pipeline transporting Algerian natural gas to Italy. Interrupting the flow and pumping operations would cause great harm to Algeria’s economy and have grave repercussions on Italy’s ability to face the winter cold.

SERGAZ services the Trans-Tunisia portion of the gas pipeline owned by Italian energy giant Eni. The pipeline is 1,200 km long, with 600 km in Algeria, 370 km in Tunisia, and 155 km in the Mediterranean Sea linking Tunisia and the Italian island of Sicily.

The pipeline carries about 34 billion cubic meters annually of Algerian gas to Italy. It is one of Italy’s major sources of energy supplies and contributes to diversifying the supply sources not only to the Italian market, but also to Europe as well, especially since the aforementioned pipeline now reaches all the way to Slovenia. SERGAZ plays a crucial role in the whole chain by ensuring pumping operations on Tunisian territory.

According to the diplomatic source, Eni, the owner of the pipeline, “has mobilised its relations in Italy and Algeria to pressure the Mechichi government to ensure adequate protection for the pipeline installations, in order to prevent protesters from taking control over it, in a repeat scenario of the El-Kamour protests in southern Tunisia.”

Eni is viewed in Italy as not just a giant energy company, but as part of the foreign policy and intelligence establishment in Rome, thus being one of the big lobbying circles with an impact on all Italian governments.

Last Thursday, the Tunisian defence ministry announced that military units had to fire warning shots in the air to disperse protesters in front of the headquarters of SERGAZ’s pressuring station in the Majel Bel-Abbas region of the governorate of Kasserine.

The ministry’s statement said that the town of Awlad Marzoug in the Bel-Abbas region witnessed protests carried out against a background of social demands that later turned into an attempt to storm the company’s buildings. Protesters turned to throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, injuring four soldiers and forcing one of them to fire shots in the air to disperse the protesters.

Immediately following these events, Mechichi received a phone call from his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte discussing the two countries’ bilateral relationship. The office of the Tunisian prime minister stated that Conte “expressed his deep satisfaction with the level of cooperation between the two countries in all fields, especially since Italy is the first investor in the energy field” in Tunisia. The Italian prime minister reaffirmed his country’s readiness to double its investments in the energy and renewable energy fields in Tunisia, a confirmation that observers linked to the events of Majel Bel-Abbas that reflects pressure on the Tunisian government through diplomatic tools and dangling the carrot of increased investment.

Tunisian political researcher Hichem Hajji did not rule out that such pressure was being used, telling The Arab Weekly, “It is not possible to talk about the current context of Tunisian-Italian relations without referring to the importance of the role that Italy has played in Tunisia for decades by virtue of being neighbours and the impact of whatever is happening inside Tunisia on Italy’s national security.”

He considered that these relations are currently dominated by “great and unprecedented tension due to Italian fears concerning Tunisia’s inability to protect Italian strategic interests, especially the trans-Tunisian natural gas pipeline.”

He also stressed that “disrupting the pumping operation to Italy of the Algerian gas represents a strategic threat to the Italian economy and its social stability, especially with the onset of the winter season and the need for heating in homes. So, Italy will work to protect the flow of Algerian natural gas through Tunisia by all means and manners.”

Following Conte’s phone call, Tunisian authorities beefed up military protection for the SERGAZ pumping station in Majel Bel-Abbas, at a time when Algerian authorities also indicated they had deployed about 35,000 officers and soldiers on their borders with Tunisia, with a large number of the troops dedicated to protecting the gas pipeline.