The border, the bridge and the gate: building a conceptual framework to understand Mediterranean security challenges

The border, the bridge and the gate: building a conceptual framework to understand Mediterranean security challenges


In the past centuries, the Mediterranean has become, from many points of view, a border. Border between Christians on the North and Muslims on the South and the East. Border between Arabic and Latin languages. Border between a mainly desert landscape thus lifestyle and a much fertile one in the North. Border between colonial powers and colonized countries since the 19th century. Border between a democratic “westernized” world and a more autocratic USSR (then Islam) oriented world since the end of World War II.

The Mediterranean also has the function of a bridge. Maritime routes, for a long time, were quicker and safer than terrestrial ones. Thus, giving an important connectivity role to seas. This is still often the case. See for example how the current trade between China and Europe is mostly maritime although it could travel by Earth. Exchanges between the two sides of the Mediterranean do exist. People cross it as migrants (legal and illegal), tourists or for business. Trade flows between both sides. Ideas and religions also travel from one side to the other.

Barrier, bridge, the Southern Mediterranean is also a gate. Constantinople, now Istanbul, used to be called the “Sublime Porte”. As it used to be the connection, the entrance to Asia for Europeans. Such a position explained its political centrality and wealth throughout centuries. Since the conflicts between Christian and Muslim countries made the route more complex for Western traders, maritime routes to India and China were explored, opened and eventually the Suez Canal was dug. The gateway function ended in Western hands until Egypt nationalised the Canal in July 1956, making it the new gatekeeper. In reality, the gatekeeping function can be considered as shared as Djibouti plays an important role with its numerous military Western (and now Chinese basis) in the Red sea. Saudi Arabia, Soudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Somalia all have coasts along the Red Sea and could further involve in gate keeping. Istanbul itself still remains a gate between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and is dubbed the “guardian of the Straits”. Maghreb is also increasingly becoming a gate between Sub-Saharan countries and Europe. The many migrants that transit through Egypt, Libya, Morocco or Turkey are a continual remembering of such a situation. What more, due to railway constructions through Asia in the frame of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, Turkey and the Mashreq are turning back to their former gate situation on the Silk roads. This situation, as Russia is a complex and (too) mighty partner on the Eastern flank of Europe, is doomed to increase.

This paper would like to advocate for this three-footed analysis of the security issues in the Mediterranean: Border, Bridge and Gate. Such an analysis will allow interesting historical perspectives to shed light on the geopolitical and economic issues faced by the Mediterranean region and Europe itself.

By focusing on the Libyan conflict and the migrant crisis we will investigate how the geopolitical situation around the Mediterranean not only creates turmoil in geographical, usually national, zones but spreads and quickly becomes a regional issue. Libya’s civil war and the migration crisis offer two strong illustrations of the three-fold conceptual pattern we just developed. We shall deal with each after having performed a comprehensive overview of the security situation in the Mediterranean (part I), deepened our comprehension of the pattern (part II). The case study of Libya will thus come as part III. The migration issue will be a part IV.

I. Geographical overlook of security issues in the Mediterranean

1.  Countries at war

 Both shores of the Mediterranean have significantly high socioeconomical differences. On the Northern side, a highly effective political and economic union has been built over the past seventy years. Keeping peace after the horrors of World War II was the main goal and if one excepts the Balkan wars, has been a great success. On the southern side, we find a patchwork of countries of various sizes going from Morocco to Syria. They mainly have in common the Arab alphabet (spoken languages have diverged), the Muslim overwhelmingly present religion in the Sunni variation and colonial past as colonies (be it as religious colonies of the Ottoman Empire or as economical ones of the Western European powers, not to go back to the pre-Egira era where they used to be possessions of the Byzantine empire). Turkey lies somewhere in the middle as it used to be the colonial power and as Turks are of Asian origin. Although regional organization exist, regional political and economic integration among those countries is weak as reasons for wars and rivalry are plentiful.

Currently, several wars, civil wars or security issues are unfolding in the Mediterranean. All on the Eastern and Southern shores. The Syrian civil war that quickly became a war against ISIS seems to be ending, but the recent battles around Idlib remember us that for the Syrian regime, it is not. The situation there remains complicated with the commitment of numerous regional (Turkey, Iran, Israël) and global powers (the US with France and UK, Russia and even China) and spillovers to the whole region. The Syrian war was in fact linked to the Iraq context by ISIS. Another spillover was the massive refugee movements to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and up to Europe.

At the same time, the Libyan revolution of 2011 that turned into an endless civil war, now opposes the Eastern side of the country to the Western one, the parliament of Tobrouk supported by General Haftar to the parliament of Tripoli with Fayez el-Sarraj as Prime minister. The destabilisation of the country after the February 2011 protests against Khaddaffi and the Western bombings led to a situation of chaos from which the country has not yet recovered. This chaotic situation has had important spillovers in the region and across the Mediterranean: arms from Khaddaffi’s strongholds were spread through the country and obviously beyond. Libya also became a hub for terrorists, traffickers and illegal immigration (Winer).

Other burning security issue, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From Israel’s independence declaration in May 1948 to today, the region has always been under pressure with several wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours and a nagging war between Israel and the Palestinian people in Gaza and Cisjordania. Israel also occupies the Golan heights that it conquered over Syria and that Syria claims back (Jensen, Foote, Wintz Neighbor). 

Stuck between Israel and Syria stands Lebanon that faces another complicated situation with the equivalent of 25% of its population being migrants from Syria, another huge part being Palestinian refugees that stayed in the South of the country when they fled from Palestine. The Palestinian refugees armed forces, Hezbollah, has been putting Lebanon at odds with its different neighbours: Israel invaded Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah’s military actions. Hezbollah also actively sided by the Syrian regime in the recent civil war despite Lebanon’s neutrality, making Lebanon a territorial base for a non-conventional army.

2. Other aching zones

 Although not as bad as the former, other tensions exist between Mediterranean countries. Marocco and Algeria oppose on the Polisario Front, an endless independence war on the South Western border of Marrocco with Mauritania. Turkey and Cyprus oppose on the Cyprian situation: Cyprus is currently divided between a Turkish zone with Turkish troops and the Republic of Cyprus, commonly known as the Greek zone and member of the EU. Cyprus is opposing Turkish accession to the EU. In the last months there has been growing tension between the countries due to the hydrocarbure discoveries around Cyprus and Turkish drillings in those meant to be in the Turkish Cyprus zone.

The South Mediterranean itself is in contact with more unstable or dangerous zones such as Iraq, Iran, The Arabic peninsula with the war in Yemen, Sub-Saharan countries. Also, not directly Mediterranean, these countries contribute to the overall insecurity along its Southern and Eastern shores.

Egypt itself has only recently recovered from its revolution then counter-revolution. The country is struggling with Islamist terrorism in the Sinaï and frequent terrorist attacks while fighting the Muslim Brotherhood from which President Morsi was close. It is now an authoritarian military dictatorship. Turkey itself is shifting from a democratic regime to a more and more autocratic inspired by Islam.  This can be seen as the result of Erdogan’s personal conception of politics, the  tensions in Syria, the failed military coup in 2016 and a more and more expansionist soft power policy turned towards the former territories of the Ottoman empire.  

II. The border, the bridge and the gate: building a conceptual framework to understand Mediterranean security challenges

 The consequence of the current situation, due to history as much as to geographical and political matters, linked to the border situation of the Mediterranean Sea is that strong influences with security issues at stake usually follow an East-West line. European issues go from Lisbon to Athens (and sometimes to Istanbul) without having a huge impact on the Southern shores. The Euro crisis was, before anything else, a European crisis. So is the fear of a revival of populism. None of the latter can be said to be a “Mediterranean issue” although most of the countries that triggered the Euro crisis happened to be… Mediterranean ones. On the other side of the Mediterranean, the 2011 “Arab Spring” also spread from West to East, in the Arab and Muslim world, without having any deep impact on EU countries other than a slight shift in diplomatic policies. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, spread to Libya, Egypt and Syria. Algeria, that then avoided it, is currently going through a similar, though pacific, phase as the Presidential elections triggered huge contestation against Bouteflika’s leadership. All these events, although followed with interest in the EU, did not overspill in EU countries but in minor supporting or protesting social movements with little impact for the northern shore of the Mediterranean. 

The “boarder prism” must be complemented by the “bridge prism”. Around the Mediterranean shores, influences and risks also have a South-North direction although in other modalities than the East-West one. The current struggle between democratic values and traditional Islam in most of the Maghreb and Mashreq countries is the result both of them being colonies of countries of the Northern shores of the Mediterranean and of the current commercial, ideological and migration ties that link the two sides of the sea. During the colonial period, the Mediterranean was (again and for a little time) a Mare Nostrum, but it never has come back to the level of security and connectivity that used to exist under the Roman Empire. Even the Ottoman Empire’s very dominant maritime power was strongly challenged by the Venetian and Spanish fleets until the Lepanto battle in 1571 stopped its progression towards the Western side of the Mediterranean and it concentrated on the Eastern part. Today trade still flows between Northern and Southern shores. But it is mostly raw materials among which petrol and gas from Libya and Algeria have the Lion’s share. People also flow as the current migration issues show.

Both of these, border and connection (thus proximity) roles offer a frame to understand the numerous security issues at stake in the Mediterranean today. The East-West one comprises the Muslim Umma, the cultural ties that link the South shores of the Mediterranean, their resistance to Human rights, democratic values and governance and market economy. The North-South emphasizes the development and economical gap and the turmoil created by this gap between the two shores of the Sea. The migration crisis can be put on behalf of this gap. The high quantity of petrol and gas discovered in several of these countries (like Libya or Algeria) participates in this distorted North-South problematic relation as Northern petrol-dependent countries buy their energy to corrupt or authoritarian governments, allowing them to survive overtime.

Border, Bridge, Gate. knowing that 1/3rd of the Global trade goes through the Mediterranean l, one understands the strategic position of such a zone. This trade flows mainly between Asia (China) and the EU: 22% of World container traffic travels through the Suez Canal (Doceul).  Raw materials, mostly hydrocarbures, flow from the Southern Coast of the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf – 17% of the total trade going through the Suez Canal is petrol (Doceul) – and participate in this overall trade traffic. This gateway position coupled with hydrocarbure production gives to the whole region a strategical position the most developed economies (understand EU, US, China) need to secure for domestic and geopolitical reasons. This explains the high concentration of Military and Naval units and facilities (the US Six Fleet in the Mediterranean, the US Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf; French, English, American and recently Chinese military basis in Djibouti). Concentration which even grew with the Syrian conflict as Russian and Chinese Navy units joined the party. Social movements and aspirations on the Southern shores of the Mediterranean are thus imprisoned in Western geopolitical strategies, as these countries, as gateway to Africa and Asia are of vital interest for their economies and survival.

Europe, before the discoveries of Christopher Columbus, Magellan, Vespucci and a couple of others was a piece of land stuck between 4 hostile and homogeneous blocks: Russia on the East, Islam on the South, the North Pole on the North, the unknown Atlantic on the West. 15th century discoveries opened its horizon on the West. The 19th century opened the South and thus the East (via the Suez Canal). It is key to Western economics that the South and East routes remain open as more than half its external trade goes this way and as without these opened gates, it would be again a piece of land blocked between a hostile Russia, an always unpracticable North pole and the Atlantic. Understanding this last point is of outmost importance when trying to understand the importance of the South and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean as gates for European commerce. The triple feature of the Mediterranean and its Southern and Eastern coats is at the heart of its unique value but of most of its security problems too as it is a strategical crossroads for too many global and regional actors.

III. Libya: from the Arab Spring border effect to the migrant gateway and bridge

 The Libyan revolution that started in February 2011 was the beginning of unprecedented chaos in the country, illustrating the East-West line of propagation of crisis and security issues in the Southern Mediterranean. The crisis first appeared as one of the episodes of the freedom revolutions experienced in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. It then became a North-South dilemma as NATO aircrafts bombed Khaddaffi’s army that was shooting on its people, participating in the fall of the dictator. As the NATO powers did not step in to insure order, Chaos slowly grew, as the country divided according to the numerous tribes, ideologies, leaders that where federated in Libya. Islamic terrorists also stepped in as the chaos was favourable to them and regional powers sided to supply arms to the different actors. Turkey and Qatar supplied arms to Muslim brotherhood related clans while Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates backed General Haftar. NATO powers slowly came back into the game, supporting too their champions: Haftar in the East or Sarraj in the West. Slowly, the countries united around two main zones: Tripoli-Sirte in the West and Tobruk-Benghazi (conquered over Islamic factions).

The conflict has been going on for a set of reasons. Most of them root themselves in the 40 years of the Khaddaffi regime:

–  Failure of a dictatorship that failed to build any institutions or civil society activities or political consciousness
–  Failure of an economic model only relying on petrol, rent and subsidies where all the basic needs where supplied by the State
–  Failure of a neglected economy almost entirely relying on petrol with little entrepreneurial possibilities and freedoms
–  The tribal social pattern

Adding to these, according to Winner JM (2019) closer causes can be recalled:

–  The spreading of armament after Khaddaffi’s regime collapse
–  The 2013 lustration law of that kept away former Khaddaffi regime officials from having any responsibility in the new administration, thus losing much of the expertise
–  The struggle for the control over the oil production
–  The spreading of Syria and Iraq based ISIS to Libya seen as an easy prey and new potential target for Islamic State extension
–  The involvement of regional and global powers in the situation as ISIS rooted in Libya and the migration issue was on the growing trend.

Libya offers an interesting illustration of the border, bridge and gate framework. As a former colony, its national unity was only achieved in the 1950’ under King Idriss’ reign, artificially sticking together a Northern part of trading cities with an inner land of pastoral nomads that had little in common. Khaddaffi’s regime took as a model Socialist regime in the USSR and social unity was heavily relying on oil export income. Here the Mediterranean played as a border between former colonial powers (Here, Italy) and colonies, between open market economies and developed democracies and a closed-up State driven economy under an authoritarian regime. The main exchange between those two shores of the Mediterranean was crude oil, dollars and basic consumption goods.

When the civil war came up, linked with the Tunisian Spring, Northern powers were involved in ending the regime, but they then left the way to regional influences and national action, illustrating the border and bridge effect: staying a long time in the region was not an option. Here the Syrian and Iraq civil wars and the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood activists quickly spilt over. The Libyan revolution, due to the difficulty to build a new regime after Ghaddaffi, became a crystallisation point of the tensions and security issues in the whole region with religious extremism thriving, local warlords taking power, regional and global powers stepping in, migration issues, plummeting economical production (mainly oil) and a wealth of death and devasted lives. The border feature of the Mediterranean fully played: issues were internal to Maghreb and Mashreq and they circulated through the Southern shore countries as media, religion and common language accelerated their transmission (there are more than 1300 satellites owned by entities belonging to Arab states) and as weak governments and economies failed to offer other perspectives to their nationals. Libya is an example of the challenges undergone by the modern State structure in the Arab world as it is seen as an invention of the colonizers, a legacy of the most hated Sykes-Picot agreement and an obstacle on the way to reuniting all Muslims under in the Islamic Uma or under the Caliphate (abolished with Turkeys defeat after World War One). Such a problematic was heavily present in the emergence of ISIS proclaiming the Caliphate in a territory comprising parts of Syria and of Iraq. A Caliphate that federates loyalties and has subsidiaries in several African and Asian countries among which Libya was one.

IV. Illegal migration: bottlenecks as result of the combination of border, gate and bridge effects

 As the civil war in Syria or in Libya unleashed, important waves of migrants going towards the Northern shores of the Mediterranean have been reported, leading to the so called 2015 migration crisis. These extraordinary events triggered attention towards a phenomenon that is in fact more a tide than a turbulent mountain river: immigration has been strong and growing in the last decades due to needs in workforce in the North, high development differences (North Mediterranean countries’ GDP is 10 times the one of their Southern counterparts and more recently, aging populations in the North while Arab countries are undergoing a 70% growth in their populations which should bring them to be as many as 650 million in 2050. While the median age in Europe is 40, it is 25 in the Arab countries.

The migration phenomenon is an illustration of the bridge and border effect of the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean currently serves as a huge wall that prevents massive immigration into the EU and its Schengen zone. The result is repeated casualties at sea due to overcrowded ships trying to get illegal migrants to Europe. Malta, Cyprus, Italy, Greek and Spanish islands are on the forefront of such a struggle on the European side. Southern countries have started to react as EU aid is now given in exchange for Southern countries exercising border control and readmitting illegal migrants. Frontex with its powerful means, participates in such a construction (although it is currently understaffed to face the issue).

Moreover, the bridge effect associated to the border ones creates bottlenecks that are illustrated by the three main migrant routes: the Eastern one from Turkey to Greece, the Western one from Morocco and Mauritania to Spain and the Central-Mediterranean one from Libya to Italy or Malta. These routes are alternatively used according to the reactions of the EU landing country and the deals they can get with the departure countries. Turkey is currently hosting more than 3 million mostly Syrian migrants thanks to a 6 billion deal the EU made with it. In former times, Khaddaffi in Libya had unleashed migrants in order to claim war reparations from Italy (5 billions) that it eventually got. Morocco on the Western route is trying to negotiate a preferential trade agreement in exchange of it preventing migrants to go to Spain. It argues such a move would worsen its relations with its Southern neighbours and it thus needs strong guarantees (Withol de Wenden, 2015). Through these bottleneck relations, insecurity spreads North, eventually weakening the European Union peace project as member states lack solidarity with the Southern states that have to deal alone with the migrant influx.

Although a border, the Mediterranean also plays here the role of bridge, allowing boats to travel across it. The most striking example being the illegal migrants crossing from Turkey to Ios or Samos, all Greek islands. This bridge effect was also illustrated by the NGO boats saving migrants in difficulty (or helping to get them through as some put it). Anyway, the Mediterranean became the place of a huge solidarity blow trying to meet the expectations of millions of migrants. This bridge effect is reinforced by the power of medias creating in Southern countries the feeling the Europe is the new Eldorado. Such information is also provided thanks to the sharing of common languages that were those of colonizing countries such as French, English, Portuguese or Italian.

At last, the gate effect of the Mediterranean can most obviously be seen in its crossroads effect for Sub-Sahara Africans or Afghans and Pakistanis transiting through the Maghreb or Mashreq towards Europe. Although many illegal migrants come from Mediterranean countries, the bulk of it comes from African countries suffering from war and drought (Abdel Aziz, N., Monzini P., Pastore F, 2015). Libya has shown the terrible image of a country were human trafficking was at a high, creating inhuman life conditions. The informal economy that arises around the illegal migration also supplements terrorist groups and mafias with the currencies they need to buy weapons and develop. Although the Seaways remain safe as World Trade relies on them, the same cannot be said of the Land ways that are becoming increasingly unfriendly on the Southern shores of the Mediterranean. Whereas goods and petrol are safe on cargo ships, humans are traded, turned into slaves, mistreated, sold.   


 Around the Mediterranean security issues spread following a triple pattern: the border effect, the bridge effect and the gate effect. The border effect contains influence movements on an East-West or West-East line. The spreading of the Arab Spring from West to East and then of ISIS and terrorism from East to West (from Syria to Iraq, Egypt then Libya) is an illustration of this phenomenon. The bridge effect is best illustrated by illegal migrant routes shifting from one bridge to the other and bringing (Eastern, Central, Western routes), by the punctual intervention of European powers on the Southern shores (Libyan bombing, Syrian war, etc.). The gate effect is playing plentiful in the crossroad function the Maghreb and Mashreq are playing when it comes to migrant routes that from Africa and Middle oriental countries gather there before crossing to Europe. The gate effect is also one of the core explanations of the involvement of European powers (and more broadly Western powers) in Maghreb and Mashreq affairs as the Southern and Eastern shores are of key interest for Europe when it comes to trade with Asia or the Persian Gulf since more than half of European trade goes through the Red Sea and a huge part of its oil comes from the Middle East. Europe has a vital need of going through the Mediterranean and its Eastern and Southern shores in order avoid isolation and remain a global economy.    

The current dramatic situations on the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean is not without remembering the 19th century and its piracy when industrialized strong northern States started colonizing the Southern shores for security and economic reasons. Although it is very unlikely that such a scenario will repeat, Europe is again in the situation where it has to get involved with the security in the region in order to guarantee its own safety. The EU has taken a very different approach from the colonial one, trying to build sustainable partners across the Mediterranean. This approach has to work or the worst scenarios may be to foresee. However, the situation is also very different from the 19th century one. Maghreb and Mashreq are a tied together reality that, despite the survival of the State structure in most of them (and even the building up of stronger repressive and militarized State powers) reacts more and more as a unified body, calling for regional solutions more than fore national ones.  


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written by Jean-Vladimir Deniau and presented to the Center for European Integration Studies to achieve the degree of a Master of European Studies