Tunisia Analysis: Anti-austerity protests reflect continued public disaffection towards leadership, potential for wide-scale civil unrest
• The recent enactment of austerity measures under the 2018 Budget Law has triggered nationwide protests, which in outlying areas of Tunisia’s capital and governorates have witnessed significant civil unrest. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested thus far, with dozens injured, including security personnel posted to protest sites.
• Protests have also been held in central Tunis on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on a daily basis since January 7, though these have mostly transpired peacefully. Furthermore, opposition figures in the legislature have called for protests to continue until the government repeals the austerity measures in the budget.
• In the coming days and weeks, similar incidents will likely take place across the country, and given precedent, the momentum of the protest movement will diminish in the near-term. That said, considering Tunisia’s persisting economic woes, and the measures taken by authorities to remedy them, additional periods of wide-scale unrest will take place.
• We currently advise against nonessential travel to outlying towns and cities in Tunisia, due to the heightened risk of civil unrest. Furthermore, those operating in metropolitan Tunis are advised to avoid nonessential travel to the al-Intikala, Le Kram, Ettadhamen, Ibn Khaldoun, Ennasr, Ariana, Bab el-Khadra, Mornaguia, and Manouba districts of the capital, due to the potential for civil unrest in these areas. Maintain heightened vigilance in downtown Tunis, include along Habib Bourguiba Avenue due to daily protests.
• In November 2017, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed introduced proposals for “comprehensive economic reforms” under the 2018 Federal Budget Plan. These aim to reduce the government’s fiscal debt in order to adhere to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) October 2017 report on Tunisia, which recommended “the need to create jobs and contain debt” to attract international funding and investment.
• The economic reforms raise “value-added and other taxes”, “lay off about 10,000 government workers” as well as increase the price of common goods, including produce, fuel, phone cards, internet access, and hotel rooms. Customs duties would also be increased on certain imports, and emphasis would be placed on boosting exports. The government’s 2018 budget, which was passed by the Assembly of Representatives in December 2017, came into effect on January 1, 2018.
• On January 7-8, demonstrations denouncing these austerity measures occurred across the country. Clashes broke out at some of the gatherings between protesters and security forces, who used tear gas. These occurred in Jendouba, Kasserine, Kairouan, Sidi Bouzid, Kef, Manouba, and Mahdia and in Ettadhamen and al-Intilaka, located on the northeastern outskirts of the Tunisian capital.
• A protester was reportedly killed at a protest broken up through tear gas in Tebourba, located 30 km west of Tunis, which locals allege was due to a security vehicle striking him, though authorities stated that he died due to pre-existing health conditions. In Gafsa, protesters blocked a highway with tire fires and forcibly emptied phosphate transport trucks.
• On January 9-10, violent demonstrations occurred on the outskirts of Tunis, and across Beja, Kasserine, Manouba, Ben Arous, Nabeul, Gabes, Sidi Bouzid, and Siliana governorates. In La Marsa, northeast of Tunis, security forces used tear gas to disperse protesters who blocked main roads with tire fires. Protesters also forcibly entered and looted a supermarket belonging to a French multinational retailer west of La Marsa.
• During the overnight hours of January 9-10, the Algeria-Tunisia border was closed due to high levels of unrest in the Kasserine and Kef governorates, while the military deployed to these areas, as well as the Sidi Bouzid and Kebili governorates to guard government buildings. Demonstrators protested outside the municipality buildings in Beja and Gafsa, while a police station and two police vehicles were set on fire in Beja Governorate’s Nefza.
• Military personnel have deployed across the country to guard banks, post offices, and other government installations from protesters. At the time of writing, authorities have arrested hundreds, and dozens of protesters and security personnel were injured in the unrest.
• Since January 7, protests have been held daily on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in front of the Ministry of Interior (MoI), and the Municipal Theater of Tunis. Opposition parties in Tunisia’s legislature have called for protests to continue, with the ultimate aim of forcing the current government to repeal the austerity measures in the 2018 Budget. A number of Tunisian lawmakers have taken part in the protests on Habib Bourguiba Avenue.
Assessments & Forecast
- These developments bolster our previous assessment that should authorities enact economic legislation perceived negatively by wide segments of civil society, this would motivate a significant uptick in protest activity. The last period of major civil unrest, which was recorded in April-June 2017, was also related to Tunisia’s poor financial situation, specifically a lack of employment opportunities and development in outlying areas, as well as proposed economic legislation. As was the case in previous similar situations, authorities enacted the 2018 Budget Law while foreseeing that its measures would trigger civil unrest, as they saw no other recourse towards remedying the country’s economic status quo.
- The current government’s resolve to persist in passing such initiatives has been seen in past months. Specifically, the legislation that partially motivated the last round of unrest included the proposed “Reconciliation Bill”, which would give amnesty to hundreds of businessmen linked to former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali who had been facing corruption charges. In September 2017, parliament approved this bill regardless. Similarly, Tunisia’s current government will likely proceed in executing the 2018 budget, and refrain from making major concessions to the political and social opposition, despite the current wave of civil unrest and demands of the latter parties.
- The promotion of the protest movement by opposition lawmakers is notable, as though such figures have expressed sympathy in past years with demonstrators and their grievances, they did not actively call for such activity, nor had they actually taken part in it themselves. This will likely play a role in perpetuating the protest movement, as supporters of the opposition are emboldened to participate in protests, given that for those concerned about legitimacy, they would perceive that they are acting within the law and with the support of public officials by doing so. Considering that opposition figures in the legislature perceive an opportunity to gain political clout and future electoral success by appealing to current anti-austerity public sentiment, the former will likely maintain their public stance towards the austerity measures, which will contribute in part to prolonging the civil unrest. Moreover, this support for and participation in the protest movement will contribute towards fracturing the electorate and public political discourse, and engender even less public confidence in the the government as it is currently assembled.
- As to the looting of a supermarket belonging to a French multinational retailer’s supermarket near La Marsa, though it is not known at the current time as to whether the store was targeted due to its foreign ownership, this motivation for this incident remains possible. This is so given that in the spring 2017 protests, demonstrators blocked access to and attempted to forcibly enter foreign-owned energy and phosphate installations. Protest leaders stated that the rationale for this was that foreign entities were doing business in Tunisia at the expense of “the average Tunisian’s livelihood”. This perceived exploitation also led to calls by protesters to nationalize industry in Tunisia, and expel foreign entities operating in the country. Thus, this sentiment likely motivated the aforementioned assault against phosphate trucks in Gafsa, as protesters may have perceived the phosphate trucks as serving foreign interest.
- FORECAST: In light of these events and circumstances, though there are no current specific threats to foreigners in Tunisia, it remains possible that foreign business concerns will be sites of protest activity, and that some of the participants will attempt to cause structural damage to them. Overall, given the momentum of the current unrest, further protest activity will continue to be recorded throughout the country, including in its major cities, including ahead of the anniversary of the Ben Ali’s formal resignation on January 14, 2011. The most severe unrest will likely continue to be witnessed mostly in outlying areas of Tunisia. Given recent precedent, protests in central Tunis will likely transpire without devolving into significant civil unrest. That said, if security personnel perceives that protests are growing unruly, it remains possible that they would act with force to break up protests in the capital, especially considering the key governmental buildings and business interests situated in downtown Tunis, which authorities prioritize in protecting from violent protest activity.
- Furthermore, considering precedent witnessed in recent years, the current protest activity will not likely reach a level that would bringing down the country’s current leadership, as took place during Tunisia’s revolution of 2011. However, further protest activity will likely be seen in the coming days and weeks, due to the abovementioned motives, and considering that the month of January marks the seven-year anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, rendering this time as one of symbolism and sensitivity for Tunisian citizens, and which intensifies feelings of disaffection with the country’s direction. As seen in previous rounds of unrest in recent years, it remains likely that the ongoing protest movement will lose momentum in the near-term. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s status quo, and the measures taken by authorities to repair it, will motivate future periods of wide-scale unrest.
- Travel to Tunis may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Those operating or residing in Tunisia are advised that we maintain operational capabilities in the country. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.
- We currently advise against nonessential travel to outlying towns and cities in Tunisia, due to the lack of travel and tourist infrastructure and a heightened risk for civil unrest.
- Those operating in metropolitan Tunis are advised to avoid nonessential travel to the al-Intikala, Le Kram, Ettadhamen, Ibn Khaldoun, Ennasr, Ariana, Bab el-Khadra, Mornaguia, and Manouba districts of the capital, due to the potential for civil unrest in these areas. Maintain heightened vigilance in downtown Tunis, include along Habib Bourguiba Avenue due to daily protests.