Civil unrest in Tunisia

Originally commissioned January 2016

The ongoing civil unrest gripping Tunisia presents a number of threats to stability in the country. Growing discontent over the dire economic realities faced by the majority of Tunisians five years after the revolution underscores the lack of tangible progress. Additionally, the current political discord and disputes with both civil servants and police add to an already daunting list of problems faced by the current government. The situation has created a dangerous opportunity for violent Islamist groups and criminal organizations, which have seen a resurgence since the revolution, to incite further violence and instability.

 

  • Economic discontent, which has again been the catalyst for widespread riots, highlights the extent of the problem stagnated progress since the revolution has created.

 

  • The current state of domestic politics is likely to complicate the passage of much needed economic and security reforms.

 

  • Resurgent violent Islamist groups and criminal organizations have sought to capitalize on events to foment further instability, a potentially dangerous development.

 

This month’s unrest in Tunisia held both superficial and substantive similarities to the unrest which drove the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, credited with inspiring the Arab Spring. Riots were sparked when an unemployed protester’s suicide in Kasserine galvanized public discontent, evoking memories of the self-immolation which instigated the 2011 revolution. Like the unrest in 2011, this year’s protests quickly spread to multiple Tunisian cities and towns, overwhelming unsuspecting local police. In response to increasing looting and violence, as protesters clashed with security forces and torched police stations, the government introduced a state of emergency and a curfew.

 

Such grievances highlight the fundamental problem facing Arab Spring countries which saw increased freedoms without economic development. Before the revolution, Tunisia’s unemployment rate, a major source of frustration, was 12%, it is now over 15%. Tunisia’s youth, drivers of the 2011 revolution, consistently express despair at the continued lack of employment opportunities. To compound problems, the following week saw 3000 off-duty police in civilian clothes march on the presidential palace in Carthage to protest low pay. With key institutional reforms stagnating since the revolution, many in the country are wondering whether the revolution has been derailed.

 

Exacerbating problems are the divisions emerging from within Tunisian politics. Nidaa Tounes, a unity government formed of non-Islamist parties, lost its majority just days after the protests, as parliamentary members resigned. Nidaa Tounes has been hit by infighting over succession since the former party chairman resigned his post to become the President of Tunisia, as constitutionally mandated. As a consequence, the Islamist, EnNahda party, has regained its parliamentary majority and reemerged as a political force, to the concern of the country’s secularists. Tunisia’s unsettled and conflicted political leadership make the implementation of much-needed reform, promised after the revolution, increasingly difficult.

 

Moreover, another unintended consequence of the revolution has been Tunisia’s steadily worsening security situation. In the revolution’s initial chaotic aftermath and influenced by the Libyan conflict, the country’s isolated southern interior and border regions saw dramatic power-shifts among organized criminal syndicates. The breakdown of pre-revolution arrangements between the state and such organizations allowed them to expand their operations. Moreover, violent Islamist groups, which saw a resurgence following the revolution, have grown considerably in part due to regional al-Qaeda affiliates and the emergence of Daesh in neighboring Libya. The ensuing competition between these rival groups has seen an escalation in both activities and violence, posing a direct threat to stability in Tunisia.

 

The past year has seen a worrying increase in violent attacks on security forces and civilians targets in Tunisia. Underscoring the extent of this threat, Islamist groups reportedly paid youths to attack police stations and incite violence during riots. Additionally, these groups sought to co-opt events, taking to social media calling for support to the “Islamic brothers”. The hashtag #Islamic_Maghreb (المغرب_الإسلامي#) was circulating around extremists on twitter to reframe the unrest as an Islamist uprising. There is a real danger violent Islamist use Tunisia’s current frustrations and political impasse as a means to destabilize the country.

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