Tunisian traders are back to business in the southeastern town of Ben Guerdane, following the reopening of the Ras Jedir border crossing between Tunisia and Libya on September 1.
The town has started to recover from a two-month halt to its commercial activity since Libya first barred the transit of goods to Tunisia, then closed its border.
Until not long ago, Ben Guerdane was the scene of protests that pushed dozens of Tunisians to the streets in June. A group of local traders blocked the main road to the key border crossing to demonstrate their frustration at new trade restrictions imposed by the Libyan authorities who are committed to clamping down on smuggling of merchandise.
In July, Tripoli shut the main border post to protect its citizens amid reports of harassment of Libyans transiting the Tunisian eastern city in conjunction with the protests.
“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.
It is not just the parallel economy that plays a key economic role in Tunisia’s long-neglected south, but Ben Guerdane specifically relies on cross-border smuggling, including contraband, with a scarce alternative in means of livelihood available.
Tunisia’s informal sector accounts for approximately 60 percent of the national economy. In Ben Guerdane, an estimated 70 percent of the population depends either directly or indirectly on informal trade.
“The Tunisian state is totally absent here except in the shape of the National Guard, police and the army. That’s the state we have in Ben Guerdane,” vented 28-year-old Bechir Chouikh, a spokesperson for the two-month protests near the border.
Under the slogan of “(You) let go, I’ll let go“, the sit-in had at the core of its strategy the goal of putting pressure on authorities at the Ras Jedir crossing point.
Besides calling for the resumption of trade, Tunisian traders demanded development projects to revive their economy, battered by rampant inflation, a sharp currency depreciation and slow growth.
In addition, the protesters asked for respect from Libyan border authorities citing verbal and physical mistreatment at Ras Jedir. They also requested the lifting of a 30 Libyan dinar tax levied on each Tunisian car entering Libya, which custom is not set for Libyans crossing into Tunisia instead.
The stand-off at the border reveals long-standing tensions between the two North African neighbours. The government in Tripoli has stepped up its efforts to control the lucrative trade from Libya to Tunisia that typically involves the smuggling of fuel, heavily subsidized goods and other foreign imports to Tunisia, such as electronics, home appliances and clothing. The benefit of importing considerably lower priced products that reach the Tunisian market is obvious.
Libya also benefits from purchasing vital Tunisian merchandise, like construction materials, but also chemicals, electronics and other items, like medical services, according to Tunisian economist Mohamed Kouni.
While highlighting the importance of the bilateral trade relations and the economic asset of Ras Jedir for the communities in the borderlands, Kouni raised the problem of exporting subsidized goods to Tunisia from the Libyan side. That would put an additional burden on the average Libyan who is already coping with hard economic and living conditions.
“Libya subsidizes a range of products for Libyan citizens, not for the Tunisian people. Because of this, Libyans are recording losses while Tunisians are enjoying buying subsidized items,” he noted, adding that “it’s not logical.”
Steps to crackdown on cross border traffic triggered protests on the Tunisian side from time to time as the Ras Jedir crossing has been repeatedly closed in the past years.
The latest closure which lasted at least six weeks caused a major slowdown in business activity in Ben Guerdane hitting smugglers and wholesalers but also many residents, whose only source of income is informal commerce.
“Every time we stage a protest near the border, it’s a reminder to our government that there are Tunisians in Ben Guerdane who have the right to work and live. Contraband at Ras Jedir can’t be the only option,” complained Chouikh stressing the need for development and employment in the border town.
By mid-August, the municipalities of Ben Guerdane and Zuwara engaged in talks to reopen the crossing including the formation of a bilateral committee.
Ben Guerdane Mayor, Fathi Abab, explained some of the difficulties encountered in the period preceding the reopening of the border.
Protesting traders initially refused to end the sit-in since they did not obtain an official guarantee from the Libyan side that Ras Jedir would be reopened immediately, opposing any delay in the talks, underway for weeks.
Libya, on the other hand, demanded an end to protests on the Tunisian side as prerequisite for going forward with them. On the day the crossing reopened, the group of people sitting in left as security forces cleared the protest area.
“The road blocked by protesters was making things complicated as we couldn’t negotiate with Libyans while the passage to the border was being cut off,” Abab said.
“With the help of citizens, we were able to proceed with the negotiation work locally through the town of Ben Guerdane.”
Extending the closure of of the Libyan border would further have had a disastrous effect on both the Tunisian and Libyan sides, bearing in mind the heavy economic losses brought by the long halt to the cross-border activity.
When referring to discussions with the Libyan counterparts, the mayor cited difficulties due to the political and security chaos inside Libya since the toppling of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which has negative repercussions on Tunisia next door.
Abab underlined that Libya is determined to discuss a viable accord with Tunisia over customs arrangements at the shared border.
With Ras Jedir open again, people of Ben Guerdane are resuming their trade while waiting for durable solutions for the local community.
“Ben Guerdane is victim of Tunisia’s liberal economic choices, the state has no influence on the socio-economic situation here,” argued Chouikh who is also working in the informal trade since he cannot find a job in his hometown