Despite an agreement reached over the weekend the Ras Jedir border crossing which is the primary point of traffic between Libya and Tunisia remains at least partially closed to Tunisian commercial traffic.
An agreement between local Libyan and Tunisian authorities was announced on Saturday, May 14 and the resumption of passenger traffic also took place on Saturday, however on Monday, according to state news agency Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) ‘Libyan authorities only allowed Tunisian traders to carry very limited quantities of goods, despite last Friday’s agreement between the Tunisian and the Libyan officials to resume the flow of goods as of Monday, May 16.’
Security and customs authorities from both countries met on Friday, May 13 before announcing the deal on Saturday, the Libyan delegation was headed by Hafedh Ben Sassi, the mayor of Zouara, while the Tunisian delegation was headed by Taher Matmati, the Governor of Medenine. Governor Matmati, told reporters at a press conference on Saturday that the agreement, which includes a single customs duty for goods, was final and would result in a resumption of commercial traffic on Monday.
The latest and still current closure dates from April 29th and follows another unfulfilled agreement earlier in April to reopen trade.
Since then, the Governor of Medenine, the Prime Minister and President of Tunisia have all been involved in attempting to get the border reopened and tamp down on increasing discontent and unrest in Ben Guerdane which is almost entirely dependent on trade with Libya.
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid visited the head of the Libyan Presidency Council, Faiez Serraj at the Bu Setta naval base in Tripoli, on May 6, and one of the topics of discussion was reopening the Ras Jedir border crossing to commercial traffic.
Reportedly, one of the chief concerns on the Libyan side was preventing the traffic in gasoline, heavily subsidized in Libya, into Tunisia.
Several days later a convoy of around one hundred Tunisian vehicles smuggling various merchandise from Libya were stopped by the Tunisian Army after trying to breach the 250 km security barrier Tunisia built along the border after last year’s terrorist attacks.
Protesters in Ben Guerdane blocked roads, burned tires and occupied the municipal government offices headquarters forcing local officials to be evacuated under police escort. The majority of the vehicles were then allowed to pass but the Tunisian Army refused access to 36 of the vehicles transporting gasoline.
The Regional secretary general of the Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT) in Medenine, Mohsen Lachiheb, called the continued holding of the vehicles carrying gasoline ‘irresponsible’ considering the army had allowed the other vehicles to pass and called for a general strike which took place on Wednesday, May 11.
The very same day as the strike in Ben Guerdane, Faiez Serraj was in Tunisia meeting with President Beji Caid Essebsi. After the meeting between the Tunisian head of state and the Libyan council head it was agreed to establish the joint committee which reached the latest agreement.
The general strike in Ben Guerdane was the second in less than a month, the first came after an agreement announced on Thursday, April 21 also went unenforced by the Libyan side. The April 21 agreement was announced after the Tunisian authorities, again represented by the Governor of Medenine, met with the local Libyan Zouara municipal authorities at Ras Jedir, cross border traffic was to have resumed on Monday, April 25.
Traders and residents in Ben Guerdane (Governorate of Medenine) held a general strike on Tuesday, April 26, in protest of the non-implementation of that agreement. After the strike Tunisian traders erected roadblocks in Ben Guerdane and its outskirts to prevent Libyan trucks from circulating in Tunisia.
On April 29 the Libyans at the border again announced Ras Jedir was again closed to all traffic.
Recent History Repeating
Cross border trade has only intermittently resumed since March 7, when the Tunisian authorities ordered a fifteen day closure of the border with Libya after a terrorist attack on the city of Ben Guerdane (Governorate of Medenine) saw scores of Tunisian militants simultaneously attack security personnel and security installations in the city center in a day long attack that began at dawn and resulted in over sixty deaths, including twelve security personnel and seven civilians.
When the fifteen days passed the Libyan authorities then loyal to Khalifah Ghwell then Prime Minister of the General National Congress (GNC) government kept the border closed to Tunisians. This sparked protests by traders in Ben Guerdane who blocked the Libyan vehicles which had been allowed through. On April 11th Gwhell said the border would remain closed until the Tunisian authorities could ensure the security of Libyan traders on Tunisian territory.
Since Faiez Serraj arrived in Tripoli from Tunisia by sea on Wednesday March 30 the municipal authorities of Zouara, which control the Ras Jedir border crossing and who’s mayor headed the Libyan delegation which agreed to reestablish traffic this weekend, switched their loyalty from Gwhell’s GNC to Serraj’s Presidency Council/Government of National Accord between the April 11th closure ordered by Gwhell and the latest April 29th closure.
The reason for the most recent delay or non enforcement has not been publicly stated.
Tunisian Border Closures
In addition to the March closure which followed the attack on Ben Guerdane, the Tunisian authorities also closed the border for a fifteen day period after a suicide bombing in Tunis, last November, which claimed the lives of twelve members of Tunisia’s Presidential Guard. Tunisian officials have stated that the explosives used in the Tunis bomb attack were of a ‘similar type’ to explosives seized earlier in 2015 which had been fabricated in Libya.
After the Sousse beach attack last June, the Tunisian authorities began construction on a 250 km ‘security barrier’ along its border with Libya. The security barrier, completed in early February, runs the section of Tunisia’s border between the Ras Jedir and Dhehiba border crossings.
Although the barrier did not prevent the March attack on Ben Guerdane there are signs, mostly measurable by the discontent in Ben Guerdane, that it has impeded smuggling. In April during a visit to the barrier by the media it was claimed that the barrier had resulted in the seizure of two million TND worth of contraband.
The trade in which, along with legal cross border trade, remains one of the only sources of income in Ben Guerdane one of Tunisia’s poorest cities in one of its most economically neglected regions.
Previous extended closures of cross border traffic have resulted in unrest and even rioting as in January of 2013 when protesters in Ben Guerdane burned a police station and cars demanding the end of a border closure.
There is growing speculation in Tunisia that the broken agreements made by the Libyans are a willful strategy by the Libyans to destabilize Tunisia’s south, true or not it is circulating and only likely to exacerbate already poor relations.
Short term, the Tunisian customs officials should make the passage of Libyan commercial traffic contingent upon a quid pro quo resumption of Tunisian commercial traffic on the Libyan side, it would seem reasonable to assume that unless trade resumes the citizens of Ben Guerdane will again harass Libyan vehicles, prompting another formal closure which in turn will add to discontent onto which the UGTT will pour the fuel of protest, a poor replacement for subsidized Libyan gasoline and fodder for Jihadists.
The solution however lies in the long term and a sustained effort by the Tunisian government towards economic development in border regions.
That promise has been broken far more times than any made by a Libyan customs official.