Tunisia: roads cut off from the informal sector

“In Ben Guerdane, 83% of economic activity is informal,” says Hamza Meddeb, researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Today, there is no longer a drop of Libyan gasoline in Tunisian gasoline plants. He adds: “The essence is the bread in this region. “Along the roads, the artisanal jerrycan has long since replaced the gasoline pump. Net of tax. In the south-east of Tunisia, Ben Guerdane is stuck thirty-five minutes drive from the Ras Jedir customs crossing point. Like the whole region, the city is suffering from the border closure. Many of the informal activities, which employ thousands of little hands, from the driver to the trader, are at a standstill. Consequence: “In Medenine, from the nearest beaches, there are daily departures for Europe. »A movement of illegal immigration whose scale provoked the summer wrath of the Italian authorities. Covid-19 is not the only culprit, the militarization of the border since 2015 has undermined an economy that depends on cross-border trade. According to the World Bank, the informal economy in Tunisia represents half of the GDP.

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Gold, tobacco, food, coins …

There are two routes between Tunisia and Libya. One is called Al Khat: “an official road used for informal purposes in exchange for bribes”. There pass legal products, subject to customs duties that the complicity of certain customs officers will eliminate. The other, “Al Contra, allows you to avoid border guards, to smuggle illicit goods, tobacco, gold, coins, petroleum, alcohol, drugs …” Artery including the usage requires “good high-level connections with several security services and the Ministry of the Interior”. Fiscal logic and morality put aside, these two roads have allowed the development of the Tunisian coast. Under the Ben Ali era, 23 years of reign, “smuggling was encouraged, the informal irrigated markets and souks, becoming a pillar of the economy”, contextualizes Meddeb. The revolutions of 2011 reshuffle the geography of power. New smuggling networks appear. On the Libyan side, the anti-Gaddafi provoke fierce competition. It becomes difficult for Tunisian merchants, “those who work between Ben Guerdane and Zaltan must go through checkpoints controlled by Arab or Amazigh militias”. The years 2015 and following are punctuated by kidnappings, various rackets. In an attempt to put an end to it, traders are getting organized. “The association for the Tunisian-Libyan fraternity” is born. Actions are being taken to change the situation. In 2016, an important sit-in blocks the point of Ras Jedir with the slogan: “let us live”. “Popular diplomacy has been organized,” observes Hamza Meddeb, “from people to people, from city to city”. The researcher is intrigued by “these negotiations which are organized between civil societies, town hall”. A veritable mosaic of interlocutors within a changing landscape. And a reality: the informal sector is crucial for the economy. Evidenced by the staggering number of people eligible for emergency aid decided in the spring, when the Covid-19 caused confinement and border closures. Hundreds of thousands of families have received some two hundred dinars in aid.

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A wall between the two countries

The closure does not date from the virus. The civil war in Libya and then the terrorist attacks carried out in Tunisia in 2015 lead governments to “besiege”, according to Hamza Meddeb’s image. After the attack on a hotel in Sousse, 38 dead on July 26, 2015, the president of the government Habib Essid decided to build a 168 km long wall between the border posts of Ras Jedir and Dehiba. There will be a ditch there. From its creation, the local populations warned that these devices would harm their activities. Five years later, the conflict in Libya remains obvious. The dialogue between Tunis and Tripoli has seen brighter hours. During his working visit to Paris last June, President Kaïs Saïed explained that “International legality and a Security Council resolution give a legal basis to the government of Fayez al-Sarraj, but this international legality cannot last” and “must be replaced by […] popular legitimacy ”. Guaranteed effect in Tripoli. The foreseeable drying up of cross-border sectors has not been accompanied by a development of substitution. The idea of ​​a logistics zone has dragged on for several years without the authorities legislating in its favor. The most powerful smuggling barons wait for better days, diversify. “The good years of Ben Guerdane are over,” continues Meddeb.

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