The Algerian Natural Gas Heating Italian Homes — And Causing Social Unrest in Tunisia

Every year, the TransMed pipeline pumps fuel worth billions of dollars through poor and dangerous regions, whose residents want a bigger slice of the pie

The Algerian Natural Gas Heating Italian Homes — And Causing Social Unrest in Tunisia
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

Towering over the small town of Sbeitla, in the middle of Tunisia, are three ancient Roman temples: one each for Minerva, Jupiter and Juno. Though you wouldn’t know it now — the town is run down, dusty, depressed and in the middle of a special military zone — Sbeitla used to be an important hub, an olive oil town at a crossroads between other Roman cities in the region. And when the Muslim conquest swept across North Africa in the seventh century, Uqba bin Nafi’s victory at Sbeitla opened the doors to the rest of the Maghreb.

The ancient temples are still standing, but it is another, less conspicuous construction that has once again elevated Sbeitla’s importance to Rome: a compression station on the 1,538-mile Trans-Mediterranean (TransMed) pipeline that transports natural gas from Algeria to Italy. The station itself is easy to miss. Tucked among the tawny hills outside of town, it’s composed of three large, cream-colored sheds in the middle of a treeless industrial plot. A muffled mechanical drone comes from the sheds as compressor engines inside push gas along the pipeline. It’s boring, but its blandness belies its significance.

All three countries — Algeria, Tunisia and Italy — rely heavily on the TransMed, albeit for very different reasons. Gas from the pipeline heats homes in Italy; it keeps the lights on and the economy running in Tunisia; and it is a prime source of revenue for Algeria’s massive state budget. Tens of billions of dollars’ worth of gas moves through the pipeline every year, but the TransMed pipeline is in trouble. An increase in political and economic instability along its route, particularly through depressed regions of Tunisia like Sbeitla, is threatening to put all three nations in jeopardy.

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing disruption of Russian gas supplies heightened the importance of other gas sources for Europe. Among them is Algeria, which is now Europe’s second-largest supplier of natural gas. It is the largest supplier of natural gas to Spain, Italy and Slovenia, and the second-largest supplier of natural gas to France. Last year, Algeria signed its first supply agreement with Germany.

Europe’s increased reliance on Algerian gas understandably prompted greater scrutiny of the sustainability of Algeria’s gas supply: Could Algeria maintain current levels of gas production? Could it increase gas volumes? If so, how quickly? And were there any above-ground risks to Algerian gas production? These are all valid questions: Algerian gas powers Europe’s electricity plants, heats homes and cooks food. In essence, it fuels European economic activity. It’s certainly worth asking whether Europe can bank on Algerian gas, and if so, for how long.

But however much these questions about the sustainability of Algerian gas production are merited, how Algerian gas gets to Europe receives less attention. In Algeria’s west, there are two pipelines. One, the Maghreb-Europe pipeline, which goes from Algeria to Spain via Morocco, was shut down by Algeria in 2021 as a result of a diplomatic dispute between Algiers and Rabat. The other pipeline, the Medgaz, goes directly from Algeria to Spain, a short, 130-mile shot along the Mediterranean seabed.

Then there’s the TransMed pipeline, which runs from eastern Algeria to Italy via Tunisia. In order to get from Algeria’s eastern border to the Tunisian coast where the pipeline goes under the Mediterranean, it passes through some of Tunisia’s poorest and most marginalized communities and through the only areas in Tunisia where militant groups remain active, including Sbeitla.

The TransMed starts in Algeria’s largest gas hub at Hassi R’mel, before heading 300 miles east to the Algeria-Tunisia border. To get the gas to the Mediterranean, and across it, the pipeline is punctuated by compression stations that pressurize the gas so it flows through the pipeline. Without these stations, the gas would linger, a stagnant miasma not doing anything for anyone. The TransMed has nine compression stations — four in Algeria and five in Tunisia. Just before the TransMed crosses into Tunisia, the gas passes through the final compression station in Algeria.

The TransMed’s easternmost compression station in Algeria is an awkward hybrid of fortified industrial site and luxury summer camp built in the middle of the desert. The entire facility is protected by high concrete walls topped with razor wire, watched over by guard towers and monitored by cameras. Vehicles entering the facility pass through protective chicanes, under drop arm barriers and into an inspection station staffed by armed guards.

Inside the perimeter, the facility is essentially two separate compounds. First, there is the compression station itself. Shipping container-sized compressor engines run around the clock, pumping gas into pipelines and giving off a grating industrial whine. Newer stations have sound barriers around the engines to dampen the drone, but that’s not the case here. When the air is still, it’s slightly sour. The compressor engines’ exhaust is scrubbed, but it is exhaust nonetheless, and any station’s tangle of pipes and valves invariably leaks a little. Past the compression station, a third of a mile down the facility’s main road, is the residential compound where workers have access to a pool and barbecue patio, a running track, weight room, basketball court and an artificial turf soccer field, as well as a catering facility and health clinic. At the end of the day, though, the compression station is an industrial site. All of the amenities just make it a nicer industrial site.

The robust security measures at the compression station are the result of reforms implemented after the 2013 In Amenas attack, when an al Qaeda splinter group attacked the Tigantourine gas processing facility in the town, taking expatriate personnel hostage and staging a standoff with Algerian security forces. The attack ultimately resulted in the deaths of 39 expatriate workers and one Algerian hostage. Among the dead were Americans, Japanese, Brits, Norwegians, Filipinos and other nationalities.

That attack stunned Algeria. Even during the decade-long Islamist insurgency that killed more than 150,000 people in the 1990s, Algeria’s oil and gas sector was never targeted. Worse, the attack crippled the country’s gas sector: Not only was the facility unable to return to full capacity for more than 20 months, but the attack prompted international energy companies to consider quitting Algeria entirely. It was simply too dangerous. Algeria was adamant that nothing like the In Amenas attack could ever happen again, whether at the wellhead or along Algeria’s hydrocarbon transportation network, and implemented high-security measures at its sites, including at TransMed compression stations. The Algerian oil and gas sector is secure.

On the Tunisian side of the border the pipeline diagonally bisects the country, with three TransMed compression stations in the southwest and two in the northeast. The final two stations, at Korba and Houariya, where the gas makes its way under the sea toward Sicily, are situated in Cap Bon, a relatively well-off region just outside the capital that is a popular weekend getaway destination, dotted with sleek guest houses and quaint cafes along its wild, rocky coastline and beautiful white sand beaches.

But the first three TransMed compression stations in Tunisia are in less prosperous regions. The sky is high in the Tunisian interior, and it feels like the wind blows all the time, whipping dust and debris into the air. The region is a semiarid highland plateau, but more arid than semiarid as of late. Feriana, where one of the compression stations sits, gets a little more than an inch of rain per year. Sbeitla can get as much as 6.5 inches. But that’s in good times. Tunisia is suffering from a drought that has lasted for five years, and the region is drier than normal.

Low homesteads are scattered across scruffy towns’ hinterlands, home to shepherds with goats and sheep, and farmers tending raggedy olive orchards, bean fields and alfalfa. There are few roads and a few dirt tracks, but not much traffic apart from the occasional banged-up pickup truck heading to or from town and lone tractors rolling from one plot to another.

This is decidedly not the Tunisia of beach holidays. There are no chic art cafes with hipster baristas. Options for eating out are limited, except for streetside kiosks in town serving up Tunisia’s ubiquitous fast-food chapati sandwiches. And while Sbeitla has two hotels thanks to the tour buses that occasionally stop at the Roman ruins, there are no hotels, sleek or otherwise, anywhere near the other compression stations.

Rather, this is the Tunisia that incited the 2011 revolution. The movement that overthrew Tunisia’s long-standing dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali began in Tunisia’s interior, sparked by a local resident’s frustration, humiliation and hopelessness. But after 14 years of postrevolutionary promises and good intentions, not much has changed. The region is still poor. Opportunities are still few. The state is still mostly absent.

The region through which the TransMed pipeline first passes in Tunisia suffers from the country’s highest poverty rates. In Majel Bel Abbes, a town with no stop signs and just a couple of speed bumps to slow drivers down as they blast through on their way to someplace else, the poverty rate is 41.4%. In Sbeitla, home to the Roman ruins, the military base and a compression station, the poverty rate is 1 in 3. In Sbikha, where another compression station is located, the rate is similar.

The official unemployment rate across southwestern Tunisia is 22.3%, though that is likely an undercount. Youth unemployment rates are higher still, particularly among young men. Almost half the region’s population is employed in agriculture, which is seasonal, meaning that even if residents are recorded as employed, for much of the year they are idle. Young men are poor, unemployed or underemployed, and bored, staring at their phones as they sit in cafes taking the smallest sips of their coffees to make them last longer.

One of the factors that is likely keeping unemployment rates from being even higher is negative migratory balances — people simply leave. In Kasserine province, where two of the three compression stations are located, just over 1 in 10 people have left. In Kairouan province, where the Sbikha compression station is located, it’s worse, with 1 in 5 people leaving the country. For those looking to build a future in the interior, it seems as though there’s nothing there.

Except compression stations.

The compression stations push natural gas worth billions upon billions of dollars through the pipeline. Sonatrach, the Algerian company that sells the gas, had 2023 revenues of $24 billion. Eni, the Italian company that buys it, had 2023 revenues of $102 billion. The pipeline cuts through these communities’ orchards, and it runs under their fields and pastures. But the gas bypasses them and goes straight to Italy. Meanwhile, the communities themselves don’t even have reliable water sources, let alone piped gas.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the compression stations have been targets of social unrest. Community members have tried to leverage the compression stations to call attention to their grievances, to demand social and economic development, to get something — anything at all — in a part of Tunisia that has nearly nothing.

There have been numerous protests and social actions at TransMed compression stations in recent years. In June 2019, Tunisia renewed its contract with Eni, which owned 50% of the pipeline. (Eni has since sold its stake in TransMed to a new company, Snam, which was previously an Eni subsidiary and is now an independent spinoff.) The new 10-year agreement, negotiated by Tunisia’s Essebsi regime in 2019, included improved terms for Tunisia, particularly in the form of gas offtakes — the amount of gas that Tunisia is able to take from the pipeline as it crosses Tunisian territory. (Gas offtakes are typically in lieu of or in addition to transit fees. In Tunisia’s case, it benefits from a combination of gas offtakes and transit fees.)

The government in Tunis touted the new terms, which showcased negotiating skills that secured additional benefits for Tunisia. But the government’s boasting about the new and improved terms drew the attention of residents in Kasserine province, who staged protests along the pipeline’s route in their communities. Landowners along the pipeline from Feriana to Sbeitla claimed that they were yet to be paid by Sergaz (Societe de Service du Gazoduc Transtunisien) — the Tunisian company responsible for operating the pipeline on Tunisian territory, including the compression stations — for existing leases. How could the government brag about the new contract’s additional benefits when it hadn’t even honored its obligations under the old one? The protesters were opposed to any new contract until Sergaz paid them what it owed.

Sergaz was targeted again in November 2020. Protesters staged a sit-in at the Sbeitla compression station, complaining that Sergaz was not an honest broker. The protesters said that in 2012, in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Sergaz promised employment opportunities for the locals and development projects that would benefit the community. The call of the revolution was, after all, to usher in a new era of social and economic justice, eradicate the corruption that characterized the Ben Ali era and ensure equitable development between the center and the periphery, between the wealthy coast and the impoverished interior, including towns like Sbeitla, Sbikha and Feriana. The reality, once the initial afterglow wore off, was different.

However well intentioned the country’s new leadership was, their ambitions didn’t align with what state-owned enterprises could actually offer local communities. Though companies like Sergaz generate enormous revenue, they require only a small number of highly trained employees to do so, and thus could not be wellsprings of employment. Most of them were barely accomplishing what they were supposed to do, let alone taking on additional corporate social responsibilities. Such was the case in Sbeitla. Eight years after the revolution, Sergaz’s promises of opportunities, growth and development had come to naught. Sbeitla was still poor.

A month after the Sbeitla compression station demonstrations, protesters at the Sbikha compression station, the next on the pipeline, threatened to close it. The Sbikha protesters’ grievances echoed those at Sbeitla. Not only was gas flowing along the pipeline, but social action was too.

While the Sbikha protests were ongoing, local residents attacked the Feriana compression station at the Algerian border. Community members had camped out in front of the compression station, voicing the same demands as the protesters at Sbeitla and Sbikha. After two weeks, they clashed with security forces. Demonstrators began to burn tires in front of their encampment as security forces moved in to arrest protesters, which prompted other protesters to hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers. Soldiers fired warning shots into the air to disperse the crowd, and in the ensuing scramble four soldiers were wounded. The protracted episode and its violent conclusion posed a significant enough threat to pipeline operations that the Italian prime minister called his Tunisian counterpart to make sure that the compression station situation was under control.

But while the Feriana clashes subsided, demonstrations and protests around the other compression stations continued. In October 2021, demonstrators again targeted the Sbeitla compression station, claiming that despite the protests a year earlier, Sergaz had still not paid them for leased land.

The protests and sit-ins at Sergaz compression stations are a manifestation of a phenomenon called resource regionalism, which is the localized analog of resource nationalism. The latter occurs when commodities-producing countries demand more money from the foreign companies exploiting those resources. Typically, when commodities prices are high, governments tighten the terms around extracting those resources. After all, shouldn’t the country where the resources are found benefit as much as, if not more than, the companies involved?

If resource nationalism is about countries insisting on getting a bigger slice of the pie, then resource regionalism is about local communities demanding that greater benefits remain with them instead of all the revenue going to the countries’ capitals. It’s a simple argument. As one protester at Algeria’s In Salah gas field said in 2015, “The cow is here, but the milk goes there.”

Resource regionalism was common across North Africa after the Arab Spring. In 2011, protests over jobs devolved into violent riots in Khouribga, Morocco, where the phosphate giant OCP Group has its biggest mines. In Libya, protesters demanding a bigger share of oil and gas receipts have regularly shut down hydrocarbon facilities from the wellhead to ports. In Tunisia itself, protesters in Gafsa, a large phosphate town two hours south of Sbeitla, regularly shut down mining operations in order to amplify their calls for more opportunities and development in their community.

The protests at Feriana, Sbikha and Sbeitla are part of this trend, except the resource being exploited — Algerian natural gas — doesn’t come from there. It just passes through.

Sited a mile and a half from both the Sbeitla compression station to the east and the Roman ruins to the west is a big military base that straddles the road out of town. It’s surrounded by a pocked cinder block wall, topped with concertina wire, festooned with plastic bags snagged out of the wind. Piles of trash have accumulated along the foot of the wall. Squat guard towers overlook the road, the cemetery next door and the surrounding brown olive groves. On a recent afternoon, the towers were unmanned, with no one standing watch. Instead, a couple of young soldiers were sitting on a concrete block at the base’s main gates, chatting and smoking cigarettes.

The base is used for counterterrorism operations. In addition to being extremely poor — or maybe in part because of this — the region around the Feriana and Sbeitla compression stations is home to Tunisia’s holdout militants. Islamic State group and al Qaeda diehards, the last remaining fighters associated with the caliph’s army in Tunisia and the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, scurry and skulk in the countryside.

In Sbeitla, there is a steady flow of military vehicles on the roads. Humvees drive around, and military transport trucks belching heavy diesel exhaust lumber past the Roman ruins on their way back to base. Groups of soldiers walk the half mile to town to get cigarettes or sandwiches or to have a coffee in a sidewalk cafe. Others ride bicycles, off to get groceries. Between the equipment rolling around and the uniformed troops out and about, the town has a garrison feel. The military is very present.

In 2015, in the midst of the Islamic State group’s global heyday, its members hit Tunisia hard. In the spring of that year, two attacked the Bardo National Museum, famous for its collection of Roman mosaics, killing 20 tourists and one police officer. Just four months later another Islamic State member attacked a southern beach resort. The attacker wandered up the beach, through the pool area and into the hotel’s lobby, killing 38 people as he went. And six months after that, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for an attack in central Tunis that targeted a bus carrying members of the Tunisian military, killing 12.

The Islamic State group’s activity in Tunisia reached its zenith the next year in 2016, when its members attacked and tried to seize a town along the border with Libya, hoping to establish an Islamic State beachhead in Tunisia. The Tunisian National Guard, police and army responded in force and repulsed the daylong attack, which ultimately led to the death of 55 Islamic State members, 13 members of the Tunisian security forces and seven civilians.

Since then, even though such activity has subsided in coastal Tunisia, it persists around Sbeitla and Feriana. From 2014 to 2018, two attacks took place within 4 miles of the Sbeitla compression station, killing 15 soldiers in one instance and five more in another.

In the years since, the Tunisian army has responded as isolated incidents have occurred, including in December 2023, when the military killed three militants in the scrubland along the Algerian border north of the Feriana compression station. Just this year, Tunisian authorities arrested seven Islamic State members less than 20 miles from the Feriana compression station and captured the head of the caliph’s army in the foothills west of Sbeitla.

Because of the threat posed by social unrest and attacks, the areas around the first three of Tunisia’s TransMed compression stations are prohibited military zones. In 2015, Tunis first created new military zones along the border with Algeria and in Kasserine province, which include the Feriana and Sbeitla compression stations, and inked a “hot pursuit” accord with Algeria, which allowed their better equipped, better trained and more experienced troops to enter Tunisian territory in pursuit of militants. Two years later, the government tightened controls around the compression stations. The 2017 measures were specifically directed at Feriana, Sbeitla and Sbikha compression stations. New military patrols were initiated, and civilian movement in the vicinity of the compression stations was restricted.

But the implementation and enforcement of the 2017 security measures has been uneven. On a recent visit to Feriana, I watched as a civilian vehicle drove up to the open gate of the compression station where a sign read “Prohibited Military Zone.” There was an empty guard tower and a barbed wire fence, but otherwise no security. The driver got out, stretched his legs, looked around and smoked a cigarette, stubbing out his butt in the dry dirt by the roadside. No one approached him. There was no one else around — just the wind and the birds.

While the compression station at Sbeitla is not nearly as remote as the one at Feriana, the 2017 restrictions do not seem to apply there either. A driver can turn off the main road just past the military base and follow a short approach to the compression station. Here at least, the gate is closed. The same applies to the compression station at Sbikha, which was specifically included in the 2017 security measures in addition to Feriana and Sbeitla.

The compression station at Sbikha, however, appears to be the best protected. The facility has a refurbished perimeter wall that is mounted with cameras in lieu of guard towers. The base of the wall is protected with Hesco barriers, which are big steel cages filled with rocks, and everything is prettied up with well-placed plantings. It hardly looks like a fortified industrial site. Even so, a car was able to approach the facility’s gate, slow down and turn around without being stopped by any security presence.

The varying security measures at Feriana, Sbeitla and Sbikha stand in sharp contrast to the last compression station on the Algerian side of the border, with its guard towers and cameras, its chicanes and drop arm barriers, and its armed guards patrolling its vehicle inspection station.

Between the social actions targeting TransMed compression stations and ongoing militant activities nearby in Tunisia’s interior, Algeria’s ability to get its gas to Europe is potentially at risk. And it is a risk that Tunisia is at pains to mitigate.

Sergaz is in disarray; its CEO, Moncef Matoussi, was fired by President Kais Saied in September 2023, and a replacement has yet to be named. Days after he was fired, the Tunisian police’s financial crimes division issued an arrest warrant for Matoussi, accusing him of corruption while at the company.

He was not the first Sergaz boss to face such allegations. A previous director fled Tunisia in 2017 after getting an inkling that he was about to be arrested on corruption charges. He reportedly now owns several villas and runs a handful of businesses in Dubai, prompting questions about how a former employee of a middling state-owned company could afford to buy real estate in the United Arab Emirates and finance commercial activities.

In the wake of the most recent dismissal of Sergaz’s CEO, a small faction in Tunisia’s Parliament pushed for an investigation into corruption at Sergaz. They want Tunisia’s president to authorize a financial audit of the company, after a wave of accusations from the company’s rank and file that the whole top management, not just the CEO, are corrupt and incompetent.

In one instance, an employee in the Health, Safety, Security and Environment (HSSE) department said that upper management is preventing his department from undertaking necessary inspections of the pipeline and compression stations and is promoting those who lack training or certifications into critical roles. They cited that the director of HSSE at the Houariya compression station was initially trained as a mechanic, but he has never received any specific HSSE training and does not have certification to international standards. Similarly, the head of HSSE at the Sbikha compression station only has high school qualifications and no advanced HSSE training.

Whistleblowers claim that these hires and promotions, which contravene the company’s bylaws, are examples of rampant corruption and blatant nepotism inside Sergaz. And they say the situation is getting worse, with new employees openly bragging on social media about friends hiring them despite lacking qualifications for their jobs.

In a recent text exchange, a U.S. official who had been in Algeria at the time of the 2013 In Amenas attack said that the circumstances in Tunisia felt similar to the months prior to the attack on the Algerian gas facility. Attention had been focused elsewhere: on the shaky new post-Arab Spring governments in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia; on the spread of Islamist militancy in the Sahara; on the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria; and on the civil war in Syria. Algeria was an afterthought. It barely registered.

But Algeria’s state-owned energy company was shambolic, having been rocked by a corruption investigation in 2010 that resulted in the arrest of its CEO and four key vice presidents, then going through two more CEOs in as many years. And Algeria’s military was introverted, consumed by schisms and jockeying for power. The In Amenas attack took everyone by surprise — the Algerian military, foreign intelligence agencies, even the companies operating the facility — and the consequences were calamitous.

An investigation afterward highlighted a prolonged labor action in the months prior to the attack that forced the plant to be shut down. The investigators also indicated that the militants had a person on the inside to help them with the facility’s layout and operations. All fingers pointed to a disgruntled local resident.

If any one of the compression stations in Tunisia were to shut down, the impact would be potentially catastrophic, depending on how long it was offline, and it would affect not only Tunisia but also Algeria and Italy.

Natural gas generates 97% of Tunisia’s electricity, and all of that gas comes from the TransMed pipeline. A disruption, especially a prolonged shutdown, would exponentially accelerate Tunisia’s economic decline, thereby heightening the risks of sustained social actions and exacerbating migration’s push factors. If the economy is bad now, it would get significantly worse without electricity.

The shutdown of a Tunisian compression station would also be devastating to Algeria, where nearly 95% of the country’s hard currency receipts are from oil and gas exports, accounting for 60% of GDP. Algeria still exports about 477,000 barrels per day of oil, but the bulk of its hydrocarbon revenue comes from natural gas exports, and most of those exports go through the TransMed pipeline.

Oil and gas receipts fund Algeria’s massive budget, including $21 billion for defense spending and another $5.5 billion for social spending. The country’s military spending is the highest in Africa, and the military is seen as an inviolable component of the state, providing security and stability.

Social spending is also sacrosanct in Algeria. It is the embodiment of the Algerian state’s social contract: It provides housing, health care and education for free, and it funds expansive subsidy regimes for everything from fuel to food. These are nonnegotiable. They are what the state does and what it is supposed to do.

Algeria knows that its ability to guarantee its security and fulfill its side of the social contract depends on oil and gas sales; hence the security measures at the final TransMed compression station in Algeria. But were a TransMed compression station in Tunisia to go down, the lion’s share of Algeria’s gas sales would stop. And if those sales stop, then Algeria’s security is in jeopardy, and its ability to uphold the social contract is at risk.

And then, of course, there is Italy, the primary beneficiary of the gas flowing through the TransMed pipeline. Gas accounts for 55% of Italian electricity generation and 81% of installed heating capacity. More than two out of every three households in Italy cook with natural gas. And 40% of Italy’s total gas requirements transit through the TransMed. Put simply, Italy needs Algerian gas and the TransMed pipeline to function reliably.

So, just as Sbeitla, the small, down-at-heel town with three tawny temples to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva proved critical to Rome more than 2,000 years ago, it continues to do so today.

Become a member today to receive access to all our paywalled essays and the best of New Lines delivered to your inbox through our newsletters.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy