By Habib M. Sayah.
Tunis, 12 December:
Last month, when General National Congress President Mohamed Magarief announced that Libya had granted Tunisia a . . .[restrict]“development aid package” worth 200 million Tunisian dinars to be used to cover Tunisia’s deficit, I was struck by the wide gap between the positions of my Libyan friends on this issue. Some of them were delighted and thought that it was Libya’s duty to help Tunisia back after it had supported their revolution. Others, however, were disappointed by that decision, which, in their opinion, had the effect “wasting their national wealth”. In a sense, both were right.
Tunisia had indeed welcomed more than 660,000 Libyan refugees who sought shelter during the revolution, according to UNHCR, and the Tunisian people readily helped the Libyans, despite the rapid deterioration of socio-economic conditions subsequent to their own revolution. On the other hand, despite its oil and gas wealth, Libya needs to focus its efforts on the tragic situation inherited from the Qaddafi regime, particularly in some of it most deprived regions. Moreover, one may argue that the Tunisian government’s lack of strategic vision for the economy does not make it a suitable candidate to manage the so-called package in a wise and responsible manner. But should we bite the hand that feeds? If Libya would indeed like to help us, it is their call and I will not argue against it. However, I hear the Libyan people’s concerns and I think this is not quite the right way to help us without causing prejudice to Libya.
Tunisia is now suffering from a decrease in international investments, due to instability and lack of leadership, and the government is unable to solve the unemployment problem facing youth, especially in the southern part of the country. In this respect, a $200-million aid-labelled “development package” may seem more opportune than ever. And yet, state-planned solidarity is not the appropriate way to solve the problems Tunisia is currently facing. Tunisia does not need bailouts. It should seek business opportunities, not phony and wasteful stimuli.
What would really help us is to do what have already been doing for ages, spontaneously and without the help of the government: trade. While weighing the pros and cons of this development package, I could not help but remember that one of the many, but rather ignored, circumstances that led to Tunisia’s revolution by further impoverishing the people from the south was Qaddafi’s decision to impose an expensive tax on the movement of goods and people across the Tunisian-Libyan border. That situation helped fuel civil unrest in the region. Then riots erupted when Qaddafi decided to close the border completely.
It is reported that more than 10 percent of the Tunisian population depends on trade between the two countries. The southern part of the country and towns like Ben Guerdane, which became a commercial hub, were built around cross-border trade. A long history of trade undoubtedly unites the two countries and it should be remembered that Tunisia supported the lifting of UN sanctions against Libya in 2003. And in spite of all the regulatory and governmental obstacles, Tunisians and Libyans have built one of the most dynamic commercial relationships in the context of the failed Maghreb integration process.
Opening our borders, by facilitating investment and allowing the free trade of goods and establishing the freedom of movement for persons, would be the best way to mutually help our recovering economies. People-to-people relationships bear the fruits of a better mutual understanding, which leads to a genuine solidarity.
A lot of Tunisians believe in Libya’s future success, as well as believing in our own ability to face the challenges ahead. But together, we can achieve outstanding economic dynamism and mutual knowledge of our respective cultures as long as our budding governments do not stand in our way. Let them deal with the technicalities while we take our common fate in hand by seizing this historical opportunity to build together what the states have consistently failed: an open Maghreb.
Habib M. Sayah is Director of the Kheireddine Institute
The views express in Opinion articles are not necessarily those of the Libya Herald
 After Europe, Libya was Tunisia’s principal trade partner as of 2010.