The reopening of the Tunisian-Libyan border in February 1988, after years of tensions between Tunisia’s then-president Habib Bourguiba and Libyan’s then-leader Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi, gave the Tunisian city of Ben Gardan a central position as a trading hub near the border, through the border crossing of Ras Jedir. This route has been called the khat, or “the line.” During the 1990s, when Libya was under United Nations sanctions and an international embargo, Tunisian traders and smugglers exported food, construction materials, and pharmaceutical products to Libya and imported mainly refined fuel.
Following the suspension of the embargo in 1999, Libya became a regional hub for the import and reexport of goods to neighboring countries. Consumer goods, household appliances, textiles, and equipment were imported from Asia and reexported to Tunisia. Libyan oil was essential to Tunisia’s economy. Tunisian smugglers supplied Libya with prohibited commodities such as alcoholic beverages, while Libyan smugglers supplied Tunisia with tobacco.
Initially confined to southern Tunisia, the khat gradually spread to the country’s central regions as the flow of goods and equipment grew. This expansion was accompanied by a massive influx of vulnerable populations as revenues and wealth generated from cross-border trade attracted people from Tunisia’s center.
People in southeastern Tunisia refer to the khat as “khat Libya,” or the line to Libya.” This reflects the mental map of inhabitants, as those in the region have always been more dependent on Libya economically than they have on Tunis. Ben Gardan’s sense of being a crossroads is apparent in the names of several locations in the city. The main intersection is named the Carrefour of the Arab Maghreb. It reflects Ben Gardan’s attachment to the regional dimension of the city, which is a nexus through which people and goods pass.
The city’s identity as a regional hub connecting Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya is well anchored, and the city’s currency traders also play a role in money transfers from Algeria to Libya and beyond. Currency dealers are located on the main street of Ben Gardan, which the inhabitants call “Wall Street.” The city has more than 250 dealers, operating informally and tolerated by the authorities. This sense of being part of regional networks again explains why the central market of Ben Gardan is named nothing less than the Maghrebi Souq.
For decades, the informal cross-border trade has been a massive social and economic reality involving school dropouts, unemployed university graduates, and public employees looking for additional income. People in the region refer to such activity as “working on the khat.” This involves transporting goods, selling commodities, and selling fuel in illegal outlets along the road. From Gabes to Ben Gardan, dozens of illegal such outlets are present to service cars and trucks with illegally imported Libyan oil products. These places are indispensable in offering cheap fuel to consumers in impoverished southern Tunisia. As such, the authorities tolerate them.
Under former president Zein al-‘Abedin bin ‘Ali’s regime, the border economy was tightly regulated by the security services, which protected politically connected traders, smugglers, and currency dealers. This generated rent that was instrumental in maintaining the population under control. Bribes and protection fees collected by the security services allowed the regime to ensure the loyalty of the security apparatus. On the Libyan side, the Qaddafi regime used border resources to consolidate its power by coopting and privileging certain tribes and social groups over others. Only loyal tribes were allowed to participate in the border economy.
The fall of the Bin Ali and Qaddafi regimes disrupted the border economy. Rivalries between armed groups in western Libya have been increasing and successive governments in Tripoli failed to gain control over the borders or regulate the competition over border resources. These armed groups have established checkpoints along the route to Ras Jedir aimed at increasing revenues through informal taxes and protection fees. Since 2014, Tunisian traders from Ben Gardan operating on the khat have faced the possibility of harsh treatment, the confiscation of their goods, kidnapping, and robbery.
Cross-border economic activity has been slowing down since 2016 because of the heavy disruption of Libyan supply chains. However, the gloomy economic and security situation in Libya is not the only factor negatively affecting the border economy. Since 2015, the Tunisian authorities have reinforced security along the border. The multiplication of terrorist attacks that year led the government to strengthen security measures by building a sand barrier lined by a trench that is 250 kilometers long, covering half the frontier between the two countries. A military buffer zone has also been created along the border, in which security forces are massively deployed. These measures have impacted heavily on smuggling networks and weakened supply chains on both sides of the frontier.
With the border becoming more dangerous, Libyan trucks loaded with extra tanks filled with fuel are the only option left to supply Ben Gardan with cheap fuel.
The end of the khat as a lifeline and the curtailment of smuggling operations are exacerbating tensions in this long-neglected region. Despite the mediation initiatives conducted by municipal councils on both sides of the border in 2018, with the purpose of reestablishing cross-border trade flows, the dynamism of the border economy seems lost. The offensive launched by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar on Tripoli in April 2019 paralyzed western Libya, impacting the social and economic situation in Tunisia’s south. Though it benefited for decades from the passage of goods and other resources, the khat is also conducive to instability in times of conflict.