Mass protests were staged and violence flared up in the city of Ben Guerdane in southeastern Tunisia on Sept. 6, following the killing of Hussein Mansour, a young man who was shot by a Tunisian military patrol on the border with Libya during a hot pursuit of smuggling vehicles coming from Libyan territory to the military buffer zone in southern Tunisia.
Rida al-Najeh, a member of the coalition of civil society groups in Ben Guerdane, told Al-Monitor, “The people are calling for alleviating the punishment measures that now include firing live bullets against smugglers in the military buffer zone. The calls are made in light of the deteriorating situation in the city, which forced young [unemployed] men to break the law and get involved in smuggling activities and cross the buffer zone. The state should have provided these citizens with the appropriate living conditions.”
The Tunisian authorities announced in August 2013 the establishment of a military buffer zone along the eastern border with Libya to prevent the smuggling of arms and ammunition from Libya into the country. Since then, the Tunisian Ministry of Defense has been imposing special procedures for access into the border buffer region, including obtaining prior authorization and subjecting any transgressing party to punishments that may include the use of live bullets in accordance with the provisions of Article 9 of the presidential decree on the creation of the buffer zone.
Most of the border cities, such as Ben Guerdane and Zahabiya, including those in the buffer zone, lack development and job opportunities for the youth. One of the few ways Tunisian youth make a living is by smuggling of goods and fuel between Tunisia and Libya, which has been threatened by the creation of the buffer zone. Hence, the Tunisian government is now torn between development and security.
Najeh said, “We are not protesting in Ben Guerdane to defend smuggling or to call for eliminating the buffer zone and jeopardizing the country's security. We are part of this country and we care for its stability. We certainly want it to be subject to the rule of law.”
He added, “But before imposing this buffer zone, the government should have provided a development and employment alternative, since it was perfectly aware that most of the citizens rely on trade with Libya as a source of livelihood. The government should not have neglected these citizens since this pushed desperate young men to take risks and start smuggling goods and fuel into the buffer zone, which in many cases led to their death.”
This is not the first time that protests were staged in Ben Guerdane over the killing of one of its young men in the buffer zone. Protests flared up in April after the killing of Mukhtar Zaghdoud, a young man who was shot by a military patrol while smuggling fuel from Libya in his vehicle.
Muftah al-Aouni, a member of the local coordination unit of the Union of Unemployed Graduates in Ben Guerdane, told Al-Monitor, “The youth of the city did not choose to get involved in smuggling activities and expose themselves to life-threatening hazards. They are not organizing recreational trips to the buffer zone. Unemployment and the difficult social and economic situations forced them to take this road. If they can find regular jobs or opportunities to launch small and medium enterprises through loans and grants, they would not risk their lives again.”
He said, “Unfortunately, the state imposes decisions without taking into consideration the difficult circumstances of the people on the border. Even the official crossings with Libya in Ben Guerdane and Zahabiya in the far south are closed sometimes, which leads to semi-permanent protests throughout the year.”
Aouni added, “In our border areas, the state is only present through security and the army. There are no projects and development programs. The number of young people who carried out smuggling activities on a daily basis in the city has dropped after the creation of the buffer zone. Dozens of young men decided to head to Europe illegally — mainly to Italy — in boats across the Libyan coast. Some of them reached their destination while dozens died on the way, and others fell into the trap of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State [IS], which exploited their difficult economic situation and recruited them into their ranks.”
Omar al-Kouz, the head of the local authority in Ben Guerdane, told Al-Monitor, “The people’s demands of employment and development are legitimate demands. It is the state's duty and responsibility to protect these people and the country from security threats. Creating a buffer zone was not an option for the authorities, but a necessity imposed by the security situation experienced in Libya — our neighbor — and on its borders. After the fall of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's regime in 2011, the borders turned into a pathway for arms to Tunisia as well as a crossing for Tunisian young men joining terrorist groups. This pushed the authorities to create the buffer zone to protect the country.”
In March, Ben Guerdane was targeted by an IS terrorist attack that killed and wounded dozens of people; IS wanted to establish its own emirate in the city. It should be noted that around 50 IS members from among those who participated in the attack on Ben Guerdane were locals. On Aug. 24, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi decided to extend the duration of the border buffer zone in southern Tunisia for one additional year.
In this regard, Kouz said, “The need for the state to preserve security does not mean that it should neglect its responsibility to provide employment opportunities and ensure development, which requires a lot of patience. Years of marginalization cannot be erased in a short time, especially in light of the economic difficulties experienced by the country.”
He added, “The state developed programs and projects for the advancement of the region, some of which are in progress, such as the project for the construction of the road that links the Libyan border to the north of the country. This step will facilitate the movement of vehicles, people and goods. There is also the free zone project, which will organize trade operations with Libya and create direct and indirect jobs for the youth. The state also took urgent measures by giving loans and grants for the creation of small- and medium-sized enterprises and funding the establishment of a large industrial area that would create job opportunities and investment potentials of the national and foreign capital. The state set up projects as well to improve infrastructure, such as a sewage treatment plant.”
In light of the government’s promises and the dire situation on the ground, the residents of the border buffer zone in Tunisia — especially the youth — are now facing the repercussions of long years of lack of development projects and marginalization by the state.
Meanwhile, Tunisia stands incapable of finding a balance between imposing security and ensuring the welfare of the residents of Ben Guerdane, who fended off IS and prevented it from taking over their city.
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