Tunisia protests and deployments, January 7-11, 2018. Graphic produced using NTrepid Timestream.

January 12, 2018

Warning Update: Economic Protests Rattle Tunisia on the Anniversary of Revolution

Widespread economic protests erupted across Tunisia and may grow into persistent civil unrest, destabilizing the Tunisian state and providing an opportunity for Salafi-jihadi groups to resume active campaigns in the country. 

Background

Protests ignited across Tunisia on January 8 in direct response to price hikes and increased taxes on gasoline, food, and other basic goods and services. The unrest is rooted in popular dissatisfaction with Tunisia’s 2018 budget and International Monetary Fund-mandated economic reforms. Protests have turned to riots in many locations, with at least six successful or attempted attacks on government buildings. The Tunisian government responded with a crackdown that included the deployment of troops and mass arrests. Security forces have arrested nearly 800 people, and clashes have injured dozens of officers. One protester died near Tunis on January 8. The protest locations include key cities from Tunisia’s 2010-2011 revolution, neighborhoods surrounding the capital, and areas where ISIS and al Qaeda militants are active.

Map reflects protest activity and deployments in Tunisia from January 7 through the morning of January 11. Numbers indicate multiple events at the same location. (Source: AEI's Critical Threats Project. Graphic produced using Ntrepid Timestream.)

Analysis & Implications

The current wave of protests could develop into an enduring movement. The demonstrations are more widespread than recent bouts of unrest, though they are not unprecedented in post-2011 Tunisia. The protesters are predominantly youth but are drawn from different sectors of Tunisian society, including both liberal activists and the working class. Protesters have resisted government calls to stand down, though military deployments reduced the level of protest activity on the night of January 10. The movement has an organized leadership—the Popular Front opposition coalition—that is planning a march on January 14, the anniversary of the 2011 ouster of former Tunisian President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali.

The protests strain an already struggling political system and will likely worsen divisions between rival factions. The Popular Front has called for early elections to leverage current momentum to challenge the ruling coalition. Responses to the protests have also demonstrated existing fissures in the governing coalition, with the country’s largest Islamist party siding with labor unions to call for a minimum wage hike. The Prime Minister accused the opposition of inciting unrest while the Interior Ministry framed the protesters as criminals, signaling a hard line on concessions.

Widespread unrest taxes the state’s security resources and provides an opportunity for Salafi-jihadi groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda, to conduct attacks. Officials warned of militants participating in riots, including an attack on a police station. Salafi-jihadi militants or supporters may also be responsible for this week’s attack on the Jewish community in Djerba, a past target of a 2002 al Qaeda-linked attack and a more recent attempted ISIS plot. Militants may also seize this opportunity to mobilize and prepare for future attacks, reversing some of the gains that Tunisian security forces have made in disrupting Salafi-jihadi networks in the past two years.

Outlook

Protests will likely resume on January 14 despite officials’ claims that unrest is ending. The government may reverse course and offer concessions to protesters, including a minimum wage increase or aid to the poor. These concessions could de-escalate protests in the near term, but they will be insufficient to neutralize an organized protest movement, much less alter the conditions that motivate protesters.

Alternately, the government could intensify its crackdown, accelerating Tunisia’s ongoing return toward authoritarianism. A major al Qaeda or ISIS attack under these conditions would worsen this trend by causing security forces to crack down on already aggrieved populations, driving more people to support Salafi-jihadi groups.

Bryan Gilday contributed significant research to this update.