Between fighting and pandemic, Jaafar Ben Ali, a Tunisian blanket seller, went a year without getting supplies in neighboring Libya. But with the appeasement of the conflict and the reopening of borders, he hopes for a resumption of the exchanges which bring life to the south of Tunisia.
“Now that the war [en Libye] is over and the borders have reopened, it’s much simpler, I’m going back and forth during the day “, underlines this trader from Ben Guerdane, a Tunisian border and commercial town.
Colorful blankets or shimmering curtains made in Turkey, Chinese or Korean household appliances and tires: the souks of Ben Guerdane, 200 kilometers from the Libyan capital Tripoli, are known for their goods arriving via western Libya.
This trade irrigates the Tunisian markets and supports many families in the south of the marginalized country where opportunities are rare. Although it operates outside the fiscal and customs framework, it has long been tolerated by the authorities, who see it as a substitute for local development.
The whole Tunisian economy is affected
But since a spectacular jihadist attack launched in 2016 against the city by members of the Libyan branch of the Islamic State group, controls have significantly increased, reducing informal exchanges.
On the Libyan side, Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s murderous offensive on Tripoli in April 2019 and the resumption of fighting until mid-2020, including near the Tunisian border, put a new brake on it.
To insecurity were added the pandemic and the consequences “Catastrophic” closing the borders for eight months, underlines the mayor of Ben Guerdane, Faathi Aaboud. “The city’s revenue was halved in 2020”, he specifies.
And the entire Tunisian economy is affected: according to the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, a UN agency, the Libyan crisis cost Tunisia 24% of its economic growth between 2011 and 2015.
Win back market share in Libya
In fact, the resumption of political dialogue in Libya, with the appointment in March of a transitional executive who is to lead the country to elections in December after a decade of chaos, is greeted with relief among Tunisian neighbors.
The business community intends to regain market share in Libya, where Turkish or Egyptian products have largely replaced Tunisian goods in recent years, alongside the growing local influence of these countries.
At the end of May, several hundred Tunisian businessmen went to Tripoli with their Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi. Tunis has obtained that Tripoli reopen letters of credit for products arriving by land, via Tunisia, whereas they had been limited for the last two years to maritime imports, playing in Turkey’s favor.
In addition, the main health restrictions at the border were lifted in May and air links were relaunched the same month by Tunis Air, the first foreign company to land in Libya for seven years. A commercial maritime service between the two countries is also under discussion.
Define a strategy for Libya
“We are moving on the right track, but we hope that the situation remains stable in Libya”, underlines Anis Jaziri, CEO of the Tunisian group Loukil and leader of the Tunisian Business Council for Africa, which organized a series of economic forums with Libya.
But the deep political crisis that Tunisia is going through weakens these efforts, the power not having “Defined a Libya strategy”, underlines economist Ezzedine Saïdane. In Ben Guardane, we are particularly worried about the place reserved for cross-border traders.
“If these agreements make it easier for little people like us to do their jobs, that’s good. But we are afraid that these are mainly large contracts signed with large groups ”, underlines a trader, Abdelkadder Massaoudi.
According to traders, the pandemic has strengthened informal exchanges via the sea, competition controlled by business networks established in the Sahel, the coastal region where Tunisian economic power has historically been concentrated.
When small importers from the south could no longer cross the land border in vans to supply themselves in Libya, full containers continued to arrive in a covert way through ports like Msaken, further north, they said.