Map of protests in Tunisia in September 2016. Source: AEI's Critical Threats Project

September 15, 2016

Warning Update: Escalating Protests Threaten Instability in Tunisia

Economic protests resembling those that sparked the 2010 Jasmine Revolution are spreading throughout Tunisia and may grow into nationwide civil unrest. The protests may escalate if security forces respond with violence or officials prove unwilling or unable to meet protesters’ demands. Widespread civil unrest provides an opportunity for Salafi-jihadi groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda, to attack government or economic targets and further destabilize the Tunisian state.

Map of protests in Tunisia in September 2016. Source: AEI's Critical Threats Project
Situation as of September 15, 2016

Major economic protests began in two Tunisian cities on September 5 and September 7.

  • Protesters blocked roads and burned a business in the town of Ben Guerdane on September 5 after Tunisian security forces shot dead a suspected smuggler. Ben Guerdane is located on the Mediterranean coastline near the Libyan border. Its economy depends on smuggling. Trade unions plan to strike in Ben Guerdane on September 21 to protest administrative gridlock.
  • A café owner set himself on fire in Fernana, a town in northwestern Tunisia, on September 7 after being denied a request to negotiate a fine. Protesters responded by burning tires, closing a major road, striking, calling for the resignation of local officials, and attempting to disrupt the water supply to Tunisia’s capital. Demonstrations intensified on September 11 after the café owner succumbed to his injuries. Additional security forces deployed to Fernana on September 12. Protesters released a series of demands, including calls for anti-corruption measures, an industrial zone, and improved public health and energy infrastructure on September 13. Demonstrations quieted on September 15, but government buildings and schools remain closed.

Protests are spreading to other cities in Tunisia in a manner that resembles the beginning of the 2010 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia that overthrew the Zine el Abidine Ben Ali regime.

  • Labor union members marched in Makthar, western Tunisia on September 13 to protest overdue development projects. Demonstrators demanded the removal of a corrupt official in El Mida, a town on Tunisia’s northeastern coast, on September 14. National Guard officers intervened to protect the official. Teachers and professors marched in Beja, north central Tunisia and Tozeur, southwestern Tunisia on September 14 to demand the implementation of a labor agreement and development plans. A farm worker in Reguib, central Tunisia attempted to self-immolate after a dispute with a local official on September 15.
  • These protests resemble the wave of civil unrest triggered by the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi in late 2010 that ousted longtime Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The Jasmine Revolution sparked the Arab Spring.

The Tunisian government is attempting to respond to protesters’ demands, but its response may be insufficient.

  • Tunisian authorities had promised on September 12 to send a ministerial delegation to Fernana to hear protesters’ grievances. Local activists reported on September 14 that the promised delegation never arrived. A regional council is now set to convene to discuss Fernana’s development on September 18. The Tunisian Ministry of Industry and Trade announced plans to develop a free-trade zone in Ben Guerdane on September 13, possibly in an effort to placate protesters.
  • The Tunisian public’s expectations that life would improve after the 2010 Jasmine Revolution have not been met. Continued economic failure and successive corruption scandals underpin widespread discontent with the government, especially in marginalized regions, where the unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent. Clashes between security forces and local residents, as well as corruption, drive popular resentment against the police.

Tunisia’s new unity government is vulnerable to economic and political backlash.

  • Newly appointed Prime Minister Youssef Chahed is preparing to announce austerity measures that will include new taxes and limits on public sector jobs. Parliament ousted former Prime Minister Habib Essid for his failure to resolve the country’s economic and security challenges. Chahed’s government faces the same challenges, as well as allegations of nepotism.

Tunisian security forces have violently repressed popular protests in the post-revolution period.

  • Protesters demonstrated nationwide in January 2016 after an unemployed young man electrocuted himself. Tunisian police responded with violent crackdowns.
  • Tunisian security forces may crack down on protesters. Tunisia’s security sector, including key leadership, has not changed since it responded violently to demonstrations in January 2016. Security forces have used states of emergency and unlawful force to break up peaceful demonstrations and detain suspects multiple times in recent years. 

Tunisia is surrounded by unstable neighbors.

Tunisia is a target for global Salafi-jihadi groups.

  • Thousands of Tunisian militants are fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Waves of returning foreign fighters will attempt to re-enter their country, bringing with them plans to break the Tunisian state.
  • The al Qaeda network, composed of a core group and an array of associates and affiliates that pursue al Qaeda’s objectives, has grown stronger since 2011. This network includes Ansar al Sharia Tunisia and the Tunisian Uqba Ibn Nafa’a Brigade.

Salafi-jihadi groups may be positioned to infiltrate or attack Tunisia in the event of unrest.

  • Tunisian has limited security resources. The government would probably re-allocate these resources from counter-terrorism operations to quell unrest should there be widespread protests.
  • Tunisian ISIS militants operating in Libya may be preparing to return to Tunisia. ISIS could exploit unrest to penetrate Tunisia’s border at Ben Guerdane, where it attacked in March 2016. ISIS militants moving westward from the group’s former stronghold in Sirte, Libya are a growing threat on Tunisia’s eastern border.
  • Al Qaeda’s strategy includes embedding itself within and co-opting movements. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Uqba Ibn Nafa’a Brigade, an AQIM affiliate, may be positioned to infiltrate a movement against the Tunisian state.

A crackdown by security forces would strengthen the Salafi-jihadi base in Tunisia.

  • A violent crackdown would exacerbate existing popular grievances and reinforce a Salafi-jihadi popular support base in Tunisia. This base will remain a source of strength for local and global Salafi-jihadi groups.

Instability in Tunisia could greatly exacerbate regional instability and threaten U.S. interests in the region.

  • The destabilization of Tunisia would remove one of the few remaining semi-stable states in North Africa.
  • The U.S. relies on Tunisia as the host of diplomatic efforts for neighboring Libya. U.S. Africa Command works closely with Tunisian security forces in counterterrorism operations and may seek to base from Tunisia for future operations.

A stronger Salafi-jihadi base in Tunisia would threaten the security of the U.S. and its allies in the long term.

  • Salafi-jihadi groups with global objectives, including ISIS and al Qaeda, will continue to draw on a Tunisian support base for resiliency and strength.
  • This base will continue to threaten Tunisia and provide foreign fighters to regional conflicts. It will support Salafi-jihadi groups with the intent and capability to attack the American and European homelands.

Popular protests in Tunisia may spread throughout the country. In the most dangerous scenario, the Tunisian state will weaken or collapse and the country’s Salafi-jihadi base will grow stronger.