The Ras Jedir border post, at the heart of power struggles in western Libya

The Ras Jedir border post, the main crossing point between Libya and Tunisia, is closed until further notice

The Ras Jedir border post, at the heart of power struggles in western Libya

The Ras Jedir border post, the main crossing point between Libya and Tunisia, is closed until further notice. The Libyan police officers responsible for control operations on their side of the border withdrew from the scene and their equipment – ​​such as the scanners used to check the loading of vehicles – was left under the responsibility of their Tunisian counterparts. The announcement of this withdrawal was made by the Libyan Minister of the Interior of the Government of “National Unity” (GUN), based in Tripoli, Emad Al-Trabelsi, at a press conference on Thursday March 21, after the violent clashes which took place a few days earlier near this locality.

On the evening of March 18, exchanges of fire took place between local armed groups and security forces, resulting in several injuries. In surveillance images published by the Interior Ministry, we see agents from the Ras Jedir Security Directorate – a civilian force dependent on the Tripoli authorities responsible for border police operations – facing a sudden crowd, presented by the authorities as a “gathering of smugglers”. The sequence does not, however, include any gunshots, but is followed by an amateur video where explosions can be heard. Other sequences published on social networks show a construction machine lifting a law enforcement vehicle or a police car destroyed during the incidents. A humiliation for the government.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Trabelsi had ordered law enforcement under his leadership to “go to the Ras Jedir border post to support the security leadership in the fight against smuggling.” In other words, the minister hoped to get his hands on this strategic point which, despite the presence of police officers under the direction of Tripoli, remains under the effective control of the Imazighen (Amazigh) militias of the Military Council of Zouara, a town located about fifty kilometers east of the border, and their Arab allies from the surrounding regions. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, control of the national territory has been divided between different armed groups.

“Vital strategic interest”

For this local alliance, holding Ras Jedir not only makes it possible to control the intense flow of travelers and trucks between Tunisia and Libya while existing as an important actor that weighs on the central power of Tripoli, but also to ensure the sustainability of informal cross-border trade – such as that of gasoline – on which the local population largely depends. With the two countries blocking smuggling across the desert over the past decade, this trade amounts almost exclusively to customs evasion through the payment of unofficial taxes which are then shared by the militias. “This represents a vital strategic interest for them,” describes Jalel Harchaoui, a political scientist attached to the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Opposite, the Tripoli government claims to have been carrying out numerous campaigns against “trafficking” networks for several months, an argument put forward during drone strikes carried out on various targets in western Libya in May 2023. The Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah, who had made his “trademark to concentrate on public money and, on a territorial level, to agree not to control all of Tripolitania”, now finds his interest in contesting the zones of influence of the notables and local militias, explains Jalel Harchaoui. “The multiplication of security incidents allows him to recall his importance at the head of the country” even though his mandate has been contested for many months, adds the researcher.

At a press conference, Emad Al-Trabelsi, who was himself a militia leader before becoming Minister of the Interior, justified the actions of his government. “We seek to secure the borders of the State to fight against crime, smuggling and all negative phenomena, and to preserve the capacities of the nation and the citizen,” he declared before threatening the militiamen with Zouara, without explicitly naming them: “The damage will be great if certain towns and tribes persist in securing the borders of our state. »

For their part, the Tunisian authorities closed the border post on the evening of March 18 “for security reasons.” Since then, human and commercial flows have shifted towards the Dehiba-Wazzin crossing point, located further south on the Libyan coast, at the risk of considerably lengthening travel times and suffocating the local smuggling economy.