Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Guns, oil and migrants

In the lax security that followed the Arab Spring uprisings, smugglers had the run of the borders in three neighbouring Arab countries, writes Khaled Hanafi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Smuggling is a fact of life — it is the soft underbelly of legal trade, filling in the gaps, meeting pent-up demand and exposing the cracks in the system. It is usually kept in check by governments concerned for their own tax revenue and their ability to enforce law and order.

However, over the past four years smuggling has lost its usual shyness, bonding with political movements, cooperating with terrorist groups and generally becoming a catalyst for turmoil. The primary motive, as usual, is money.

In a report published by the UK newspaper The Guardian in August 2014, one smuggler said that he charged $1,000 for every individual smuggled on a boat from Libya to Europe, bringing the total profits of one sea trip to $200,000 and the operation’s monthly take to $1 million or so.

The smuggling business boomed in the conditions of instability that followed the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. The Libyan government, its authority dwindling in the face of armed groups, could no longer keep up with the traffickers. Enjoying unprecedented freedom across increasingly uncontrolled borders, traffickers hauled everything of value they could in both directions: from food and clothes to guns and drugs and even antiquities.

The Arab Spring may have failed to deliver the freedom it promised to the masses, but it gave the smugglers what they were hoping for. Even more disconcertingly, the cash the business generates often goes to support jihadist groups intent on unseating governments.

Legal cross-border trade is a source of revenue for the public coffers. But when traffickers take over the cash they make is mostly used to defend the lawlessness they cherish and the political vacuum that is so good for business.

Smugglers like to operate along porous borders, and they particularly thrive in areas where their services are in demand. The Libyan-Tunisian and Libyan-Egyptian borders fit the bill. They offer a natural route between nations in turmoil and also between Africa’s impoverished populations and Europe’s affluence.

Because of poverty, unemployment and the lack of other opportunities, the traffickers have no trouble recruiting, finding customers and attracting allies. The borders in North Africa run through deserted areas, making them difficult to police. And since the borders often intersect tribal territories, it is not hard for the smugglers to find a sympathetic clan to offer help at the other side of a frontier.

In addition, most of the countries that experienced the Arab Spring emerged with a much-reduced police force, offering the smugglers a head start in a business that thrives on cash and shifting loyalties.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), an international NGO, notes that police reports against traffickers dropped significantly after the revolution in Tunisia. In 2010, Tunisian police filed 3,650 reports against suspected smugglers. In 2012, the corresponding figure was 441, a mere fraction of the former total.

Political tensions also play into the hands of traffickers. For example, Egyptian-Libyan relations deteriorated twice since the Arab Spring: once when Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) tarried in supporting the Libyan Revolution, and again when Libyan Islamists objected to Egypt’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood. In both cases, security cooperation was out of the question, giving the smugglers the respite they were waiting for.

Tunisia, conversely, recognised the Libyan Revolution without hesitation, which led to relatively good political ties. But even this did not help. As Libya failed to put together a credible security force, domestic instability in the country seeped across the borders into both Egypt and Tunisia, along with guns and jihadists.

The disintegration continued, leading to a rise in terror and organised crime. In one extreme case, Coptic Egyptians were abducted and killed by Libyan jihadists associated with the Islamic State (IS) group. But less-publicised abductions had been going on even before that, ending in either the payment of ransoms or murder.

As Libyan cities fell into the hands of rival militias and governments, border security was left to the tribes that live along the borders, some of them having connections to the underworld of smuggling.

TYPES OF SMUGGLING: Smugglers trade in anything that will bring them profit. Before the Arab Spring they usually trafficked in luxury items, tobacco and illegal immigrants. But once the uprisings began, demand for weapons increased, with jihadists buying, selling and helping transport entire arsenals for use in an indiscriminate quest for power.

When the arsenals of Gaddafi’s regime were looted in the wake of the revolution, Libya turned into a world-class arms-dealing bonanza. No official estimates exist, but upwards of 20 million guns of all calibres may have changed hands after Gaddafi’s ouster. If you had access to the Libyan market, you could pick and choose between a handgun or a fully functional anti-aircraft defence system.

In Egypt, the demand for weapons was considerable. With Sinai-based jihadists harassing the government and the Hamas group in Gaza needing to stock up while the opportunity existed, the traffickers had a field day. Former prime minister Kamal Al-Ganzouri once said that nearly 10 million guns were smuggled into Egypt from Libya and Sudan after the 2011 revolution.

Tunisia has also had its fair share of Libyan weapons. Since 2013, the Tunisian police has been finding weapon depots across the country. It has seized enough Kalashnikovs, RPGs, explosive charges, hand grenades, handguns, ammunition and army uniforms to start a war, or at least facilitate the kind of terrorist attacks recently seen at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.

The threat of jihadists in Tunisia remains confined to small pockets, and the Islamist Ennahda Movement’s reconciliatory position during the recent elections brought calm to the political scene.

But in Egypt, where the regime has been locked in a deadly confrontation with the jihadists since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2013, the effort to contain the arms trade is now combined with an uphill battle to chase down the men who bought these weapons with the intent to use them.

After the depreciation of the Libyan dinar in the wake of the revolution, it became profitable for smugglers to buy regular consumer items in Libya and then resell them in Tunisia. They brought back things Libyans now lack, including milk and medicine.

Tobacco is another lucrative line of business for the smugglers. According to UN officials, the size of the tobacco trade in North African countries is about $1 billion. North African countries smoke about 44 per cent of all the tobacco consumed in the continent.

Experts say that about 75 per cent of the tobacco Libyan smokers buy today is smuggled.

 The smuggling of illegal immigrants is another lucrative line of business. From Egypt and Tunisia, traffickers take desperate young men into Libya, with a promise to ship them to Europe in what usually turns out to be a painful, crowded and life-threatening journey — one that can cost the customers more than just the money they paid.

Products that are subsidised by governments offer an easy profit for the traffickers. Petrol is regularly smuggled from Libya to Tunisia. A World Bank study suggests that 25 per cent of the petrol used by the Tunisians is smuggled in from Libya. A litre of petrol costs three dinars in Tunisia, but is less than one dinar in Libya, offering a large profit margin for the illegal trade.

Other regular trading items that cross the borders illegally include canned food, clothes, shoes, plastic products and tyres.

A World Bank study published in 2014 suggests that smugglers handle 600 million Tunisian dinars ($300 million) worth of merchandise per year, making a profit of at least 120 million dinars ($60 million), assuming a profit rate of 20 per cent.

Smugglers operate both ways, buying petrol and subsidised products in Libya and taking them to Tunisia, and then bringing back those products that the Libyans are having trouble importing due to the civil war. Libya needs medical supplies and certain food products. Milk, for example, can sell in Libya for up to seven times its price in Tunisia.

Libyans escaping from Libya to Tunisia also have a hand in stimulating cross-border trade. About 90,000 Libyans have crossed into Tunisia, according to official figures (unofficial estimates are five times higher). To pay their way, some have sold their jewellery and other items, giving considerable business to moneychangers in southern Tunisia.

Smuggling used to be conducted by networks connected to corrupt customs officials and a few border clans. Today’s reality is more complex and turbulent.

Since the Arab Spring revolutions, armed groups and major tribes have developed a taste for contraband trade, which further complicates the authorities’ attempt to restore law and order. With the collapse of the central government in Libya, the authorities have left the task of patrolling the borders to armed militias with tribal connections, a situation that has favoured the smuggling business.

The Libyan borders are now so porous that the Libyan Tuaregs have no problem sending weapons to their kin in northern Kenya. The ease of trafficking has inflamed jihadist zeal in the Sahel countries, threatening governments and promoting a French-led international intervention in Mali.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey has mapped the smuggling routes in North Africa, noting that the Nafusa Mountains and the Ghadames Oasis in northwest Libya and the town of Ben Gerdane in Tunisia form important stops for the smugglers.

The point of intersection of the Libyan-Tunisian-Algerian borders has attracted jihadists of more than one country, all working closely with the Tuareg tribes. But the Zintan clans in Libya are now also eyeing such strategic areas, which may lead to Tuareg-Zintan conflict over this prime trafficking business.

DESTABILISING TRADE: Smuggling poses an immediate threat to the economies involved, not just because of the loss of tax revenues, but also because of the destabilisation it brings to the political and social scene.

The growing arms trade has fuelled violence in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, giving a particular boost to terror. After the revolution, many Libyans started carrying arms for self-protection or other reasons. According to the ICG, nearly 125,000 Libyans own guns out of a nation of six million people.

The illegal arms trade is also blamed for the prolonged confrontations between the Egyptian government and jihadists based in Sinai and elsewhere in the country, following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 30 June Revolution.

As trafficking got out of hand in North Africa, the major powers began to take an interest in the problem. The EU and the US are particularly concerned about Libya, while Tunisia has been asking the international community, especially the US, for help in combating organised crime on its borders.

Smuggling can undermine local producers, as it may provide competitive goods at cut-rate prices. The practice also undermines the government’s ability to collect taxes, and thereby curbs its ability to introduce development programmes. Money laundering is also common in economies infested with smuggling activities. And the close correlation between smuggling and terror discourages local and foreign investment.

Of particular concern is the symbiotic relationship between smugglers, jihadists and disaffected tribes in neglected border areas. If corrupt government officials and policemen are brought into this network, the risk is doubled.

One option suggested by security officials to deal with smuggling is to enforce tougher security measures along the borders. However, attempts to insulate the borders often fail, especially in cases where they run for hundreds of miles in lightly populated areas, which is the case for the borders connecting Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

A better approach is to involve local communities in policing the borders and recruit them to the security services of the state. Before the Arab Spring revolutions, security services in the three countries had enough rapport with the local communities in border areas to ensure that smuggling operations were kept to a minimum, though they sometimes had to appease the smugglers by allowing them to deal in harmless consumer goods.

Another way to discourage the smugglers is to close the gap between the price of smuggled goods and the official price. When subsidies lower the prices of certain items, smugglers see this as an invitation to start a clandestine cross-border business in these particular items, as is the case for petrol and milk in the case of Libya and Tunisia. When restrictions keep the prices of other goods artificially high, smugglers also try to fill the gap.

Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have all thought of creating free-trade zones on the borders, legalising cross-border trade and giving the smugglers a chance to integrate into the mainstream economy.

The political rehabilitation of remote communities is also essential to suppressing illegal trade. In Marsa Matrouh in Egypt, the government is winning tribal loyalty with promises of development projects. Such promises were made during visits to the area by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi when he was minister of defence. If successful, the government may get the tribes to disassociate themselves from the smugglers, thus making trafficking a more difficult and rarer endeavour.

No country can be expected to stamp out smuggling altogether, but it is possible to keep the activity in check. In North Africa, closer coordination among the governments involved is also needed, especially in view of the risks smuggling poses not only to the economy but also to the security of these countries.

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