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Tunisia Attempts to Calm Citizens After Deadly Protests Over New Border Taxes

Over 1 million Tunisians in the impoverished south survive on illegal cross-border trade with Libya, but a recent tax on these activities has sparked demonstrations.

by Pierre Longeray
Feb 13 2015, 12:04am

Image via Flickr

The Tunisian government sent two of its cabinet ministers to the south of the country Wednesday, with the visit coming just days after violent protests in the region over the weekend against a border tax turned deadly. 

Minister of Finance Slim Chaker and the Minister of Development Yassine Ibrahim traveled to the southeastern town of Dehiba to appease the population and to reaffirm the government's commitment to the region in the wake of the unrest.

The demonstrations began Saturday in Dehiba after police seized a haul of contraband fuel, which was smuggled across the border from neighboring Libya. Locals rely on smuggled goods for economic survival, and illegal trade with Libya makes up a large part of the region's dire economy. 

Protests continued through the weekend, eventually leading to clashes between protestors and security officials that resulted in multiple injuries and the death of a protester on Sunday. Local officials have launched an inquiry into the death of a young man who was killed. They are also trying to determine whether or not the police used real bullets against the crowd. Residents of Ben Guardane and Tataouine — Tunisia's two main border crossings with Libya — staged a general strike Tuesday following the escalating violence between the police and demonstrators.

One of the protesters' main grievances is a new 30 Dinar ($15) export tax on foreigners, imposed by the government back in October, and which locals say has negatively impacted smuggling activities. In response to the new tax, Libya implemented its own 60 Dinar tariff ($30), making a desperate economic situation even worse. 

"Many people were injured, but there isn't much damage in the town," Mustapha Abdelkebir, a human rights activist from Ben Guerdane who took part in Wednesday's demonstrations and witnessed the police violence first-hand, told VICE News. 

"Around 15 young people aged 16 to 17 were arrested. We got ten of them released yesterday, and this morning, we're trying to find a solution for the remaining five," Abdelkebir said.

Since the demonstrations, however, newly elected Prime Minister Habib Essid said he would repeal the tax. The demonstrations flared up just two days after Tunisia's parliament approved a new coalition government led by secular party Nidaa Tounès and including the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.

Southern Tunisia has survived for decades on the trade of illegal goods — mainly fuel — across the border with Libya to the East, and Algeria to the West. 

Michaël Béchir Ayari, International Crisis Group's senior Tunisia analyst, told VICE News that in July 2010 an attempt to introduce a similar tax in Ben Guerdane had caused an uprising, explaining that, in the region "close to one million people rely on this informal [smuggling-based] economy."

"For the people in the south, smuggling, which involves picking up cheap goods in Libya, is a way to conduct business," said Abdelkebir. "They make around 40 dinars [$20] a day, so if they have to pay the tax, they won't have anything to live on."

Ayari distinguished two types of smuggling. On the one hand, he said there are "the true smugglers, 'the border sons,' who take all kinds of risks and cross the border with heavily taxed goods [cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and fuel]." On the other hand, there are the "suitcase smugglers," locals who resell furniture, food, or domestic appliances on the big market in the mercantile town of Ben Guardane. These are the people most affected by the recent tax.

Smuggling activity in the region was largely born out of a need to compensate for the government's neglect of the south's troubled economy. 

"This negligence already existed during Bourguiba and continued under Ben Ali," Mansouria Mokhefi, special advisor on the Middle East at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), told VICE News.

"There are two Tunisias," Mokhefi said, "the northern coast, which is modern and developed, and the South, which is perceived by the government as being backward."

According to Mokhefi the backward's reputatino contradicts the region's impact on national politics. "The South, which many think is stuck in its ways, is the cradle of the Tunisian spring, which started in the small town of Sidi Bouzid and traveled north to the capital Tunis," he explained.

Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World, told VICE News that the use of excessive force during recent protests has resurrected memories of police crackdowns under former President Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011 during the Arab Spring. 

"Firing real bullets is unacceptable," Abidi said, referring to the uncertainty over whether security forces fired bullets into the crowd.

"The new president and prime minister were around during Ben Ali's régime," he said. "The comeback of officials associated with the authoritarian régime could spell the return of an authoritarian culture, and bring back police impunity."

Abdelkebir, who has spoken with many protesters over the past few days, said the people's grievances were twofold. 

"First of all, people want the tax to be lifted," he said. "Secondly, the government needs to promote the economic development of the South. It could start by doing small things, such as removing all the red tape for those who want to start a business, which today is practically impossible."

Speaking in Dehiba on Wednesday, finance minister Chaker and development minister Ibrahim, said the government was looking at creating a free trade area between Tunisia and its neighbors, and reaffirmed the government's commitment to fixing the region's economic crisis.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray

Image of the road to Tataouine via Flickr.