Libya delays reopening Ras Jedir border crossing with Tunisia

The reopening was first delayed on 19 June to “finish the necessary procedures.” [Getty]

Libya postpones the reopening of the main border crossing with Tunisia yet again, impacting a crucial route for both legitimate and illegitimate trade.

“Armed groups from the city of Zuwara closed the main road leading to the Ras Jedir border crossing with Tunisia, causing the postponement of its reopening to traffic, which was scheduled for today,” reported local media on Monday, 24 June.

The reopening was first delayed on 19 June to “finish the necessary procedures.”

Back in March, Ras Jedir was initially closed following armed clashes in the area between local militia fighters loyal to Libya’s Amazigh and forces aligned with the Government of National Unity’s Ministry of Interior, which injured at least three people on March 18.

Clashes between militias are hardly unusual in this border region, where such conflicts have become almost routine since Libya’s 2011 revolution.

In 2016, the Islamic State (ISIL) fighters stormed Tunisia’s border town of Ben Guerdane, only to be repelled by Tunisian security forces.

The Ras Jedir border area also witnessed the Tunisian authorities’ dumping of hundreds of migrants last year in the Sahara, where at least twenty people, including women and children, died of thirst.

An investigation by Info Migrants, published last December, revealed that Tunisian authorities used the border crossing to hand over migrants to Libyan forces to be transferred to Libyan prisons in horrible conditions. Both authorities denied the allegations.

Early in June, Libya’s Minister of Interior Emad Al-Trabelsi met his Tunisian counterpart, Khaled Nouri, in Tripoli, signing a security agreement to reopen the border crossing: partially on June 13 for urgent humanitarian and diplomatic situations, and fully on June 20 for citizens with a yet to be announced opening date for trade.

However, the Tripoli Interior Ministry announced on June 19 another delay, citing “incomplete necessary procedures.”

The crossing remains open for urgent and diplomatic passages, but the reasons behind the border debacle might be more complex than just security concerns.

“It is difficult to ascertain the reasons for the postponement of the opening of Ras Jedir. However, I believe that Tunisian and Libyan authorities have not made progress on crucial issues they previously agreed upon,” Hamza Meddeb, a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Institute, told The New Arab.

Despite several recent diplomatic meetings between Tunis and Tripoli, the two North African neighbours have so far avoided publicly addressing many of their disagreements head-on.

Progress has unlikely been made in resolving the issue of Libyan funds blocked in Tunisia, which the Tunisian authorities are withholding without proof of origin. 

“This longstanding problem began in 2011 following the uprisings in both countries and has yet to be resolved,” said Meddeb.

“It is conceivable that political divergences and tensions persist. Relations between Debaiba and Saied have historically been strained,” added Meddeb, who has written extensively on the border.

Economic impact of Ras Jedir’s closure

Ras Jedir has been a lifeline for the border towns, like Ben Guardane, even before the frontier was established in 1910. 

When Ras Jedir was established, it was a bustling hub with miles of trucks passing through daily, transporting everything from commercial goods to industrial cargo manufactured in far-off markets for Tunisian clients.

Every day, up to 5,000 cars and 10,000 people cross the border, with significant amounts of money changing hands in bribes and taxes.

Libyan Minister of the Interior Imad Trabelsi was probably not exaggerating when he labelled Ras Jedir “one of the largest smuggling hubs in the world,” estimating the value of goods passing illegally there at “US$100 million a week.”

“This postponement will certainly have serious effects on Tunisia’s economy, especially in the southern regions, which are highly dependent on trade flows with Libya,” added Meddeb in his interview with TNA. “Libyan regions and their populations will also be affected, as many Libyans travel to Tunisia for health services and other needs.”

Before the closure, security on the Libyan side was overseen by forces from the Amazigh tribes of Zuwara, a coastal town with a strained relationship with the internationally recognised government in Tripoli.

Following the March’s violent outbreak, the Zuwara Military Chamber and Tripoli’s Chief of General Staff reached an agreement and decided to form a Joint Force to secure the border crossing.

However, Amazigh tribes said Tripoli has decided to exclude them from securing the border last minute leading to the Amazigh tribes closing all entrances to the municipality, including the Ras Jedir border crossing and the Abu Kammash coastal road, on Sunday 23 June, in protest of Tripoli’s “ethnic and racist targeting against the Amazigh of Libya.”

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