Pasta and petrol: smuggling crackdown in Tunisia

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Tunisian Zubair Abdel-Moula lost his work selling smuggled fuel on the streets of a poor southern town after government tightened controls with Libya to stop militants crossing the border.

The 32-year-old, who never had a full-time job, now sits on a mattress blocking traffic in Remada’s main street with other unemployed protestors, demanding state jobs and aid.

Tunisia started digging trenches and setting up monitoring systems provided by Western allies on the Libyan border in 2015.

Routes used for decades to smuggle cheap fuel, pasta and wheat from Libya to Tunisia, were being used by Islamic militants to transport drugs and arms.

Officials say shutting the routes helped prevent a repeat of attacks such as one in 2015 when a Libyan-trained Tunisian killed dozens of tourists on a Tunisian beach.

The crackdown took the livelihood of thousands, with many joining the protests. The growing dissent is a worry for government, the ninth since the Arab Spring and the 2011 fall of leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, as it clings to power.
“We won’t go,” said Abdel-Moula. “I don’t hope of things getting better.”

Southern Tunisia sits on the oil and phosphate that drive the overall economy but good jobs in those sectors rarely go to locals who often lack engineering skills. The area around Remada is poorer than Tunis.
“The south provides everything for Tunisia. There are foreign companies making money here bu locals can’t get jobs at oilfields.” said Abdel-Moula.

Fellow protestor Abdullah spent nights in remote borderlands buying fuel from Libyan truck drivers to sell in Remada. Due to subsidies, the pump price of petrol in Libya is ten times cheaper than in Tunisia.

With the crackdown, it has become too dangerous.
“I used to have a fuel distribution station with seven other families to buy Libyan fuel but it has become too dangerous,” said Abdullah, asking not to use his full name.

UNEMPLOYMENT

Western countries praised Tunisia as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring. It transitioned to democracy after toppling long-serving leader Ben-Ali without widespread violence or civil war.

It held free elections and in 2014 approved a constitution guaranteeing fundamental rights in contrast to autocratic systems and turmoil elsewhere in region.

The succession of governments since Ben Ali’s overthrow has been unable to resolve deep-rooted economic problems. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed is fighting for survival with his coalition locked in a row on economic reform.

Investors have been scared away from North Africa by turmoil in Libya, inflation hit 7.4% in September, the highest since 1990 and the unemployment rate is 15%.

In the southern province of Tataouine, including Remada and much of the Libyan border, unemployment is at 32%.
“We have a problem with unemployment,” said Governor Adel Ouerghi. “Most youth want to work on oilfields in the desert because salaries are high.”

Many Tunisians used to cross the border to work in Libya but now feel the country is too dangerous.
“If the situation was stable 300,000 to 400,000 could find work there,” he said.

Tunisia tolerated smuggling for decades as a way to help the south which missed out on industries concentrated mostly in the north and eastern coast.

Some 3,000 Tunisians joined Islamic State and other extremists in Libya, Syria and Iraq, many from the south or equally neglected central hinterland.

Chaos in Libya saw a spike in arrivals of militants, drugs and weapons, diplomats say, forcing government to act.

Libya’s state oil firm, NOC, was keen for a crackdown. It estimates smuggling cost the economy at least $750 million each year.
“We think most of the fuel goes to Tunisia and to Europe via Malta,” NOC said in a statement. “Some local economies have become oriented around smuggling and this affects the fabric of communities who become dependent on criminal activity.”

Smuggling causes fuel shortages in some Libyan towns, officials say.
“It agreed with other towns and tribes to disassociate all involved in smuggling,” said Mustafa al-Barouni, mayor of Zintan, a western Libyan town.

ESCALATION

Tunisian officials say it will be impossible to stop smuggling completely.

The border cannot be sealed in mountain regions and some Tunisian guards, often related to smugglers, look the other way for a bribe, residents say.

Fuel stalls seen by Reuters between Remada and provincial capital Tataouine were abandoned but some youths were still selling gasoline, even on the same street as the governor’s office.

For the protesters too many people have lost livelihoods.
“Thousands of families depend on this,” said Salem Bounhas, secretary general of the labour union UGTT in Tataouine.

Protestors threaten road blocks to cut off access to oil refineries unless government finds them work.



Government focused too much on closing borders without dealing with unemployment, said Chloe Teevan, a North Africa researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Such policies contribute to rising disillusionment after the revolution.”