Tunisia Faces Crossroads as Protests Wane
By Emily Estelle
Protests waned following the anniversary of Tunisia’s revolution, leaving the country at a critical juncture between progress and instability.
The protests began on January 8 as a mass outcry against economic reforms that raised the prices of basic goods and services. Demonstrations spread across the country until January 11, when the deployment of security forces began to limit turnout. Protests spiked again on January 14, the anniversary of the 2011 ouster of Tunisian President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali in 2011, but have since subsided.
The opportunity for mass unrest has passed for now. The Tunisian government pledged several measures intended to reduce the impact of austerity measures on the poor and unemployed on January 13. These announcements did not quell protests entirely but likely reduced turnout compared to the prior week. The absence of a strong connection between organized leadership and the people in the streets also weakened the protests, particularly in the regions outside of the capital. Despite their weakening, this week’s protests are notable for their broad geographic spread which more closely resembles the 2010-2011 Jasmine Revolution than other waves of unrest in the intervening years.
Tunisia is now at a dangerous crossroads. Democratic reforms, rising political engagement, and a popular anti-corruption agenda offer reasons for hope. But persistently high youth unemployment, pervasive corruption, and the weakening of independent institutions present major challenges. Tunisia’s economic recovery—and with it, the legitimacy of the current government—hangs by a thread that one terrorist attack on the country’s gradually reviving tourism sector could sever.
The consequences of the fall of the Tunisian state would be far-reaching and severe. Tunisia and its allies have significantly weakened ISIS and other Salafi-jihadi groups in the country. Major instability in Tunisia could reverse this trend and allow ISIS to establish another foothold in North Africa, alongside its haven in neighboring Libya. The failure of the Tunisian state—the Arab Spring’s lone success—would also deal a damaging blow to the promise of democracy in the Arab world.
It is not yet clear what path Tunisia will take. The government may succeed in staving off another revolution long enough for economic reforms to bring long-awaited benefits to the population. Indicators that unrest will grow include the spread of organized protest leadership beyond the capital region and, more broadly, the growth of popular disengagement and disillusionment signaled by low election turnout or negative polling on currently popular government initiatives. The Tunisian government still has time to place the country on a successful path, but its failure could lead the Tunisian people to seek a more drastic change.
Beyond Tunisia, additional takeaways from the week
- Iran will likely oppose any U.S. or Western efforts to alter the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). President Donald Trump warned on January 12 that he will no longer waive sanctions lifted under the deal if Congress and Europe cannot resolve the deal’s major defects.
- A Saudi-led coalition campaign against the al Houthi movement in central Yemen may strengthen al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Coalition airstrikes on al Houthi positions in al Bayda governorate in central Yemen may inadvertently benefit AQAP proxies, which fight alongside local tribal forces in this area.