The evident comparison can be made with the 2011 Arab Spring protests though these drew thousands of individuals and peaked with mass mobilization in the capital, Tunis. Winter protests are a regular cyclical feature in the region owing to the squeeze on unemployed and poor families. In January 2016, protests erupted in Kasserine, for instance. In May 2017, protesters sought to storm a petrol facility in Tataouine, asking for wealth redistribution. There is evident correlation between regions with high youth unemployment and current protests: both manifested themselves in the county’s south and in the regions west, east and south-east of Tunis.
Several Tunisian commentators have noted that socio-economic indignation has given way to enraged and feverish rioting. Some signs point to the current wave of protests being graver than previous post-Arab Spring uproar; this includes the reported firebombing of a Jewish school in the touristic island of Djerba to the south-east and the death of a 50-year-old protester in Terbourba allegedly as a result of being run over by police. However, the Djerba synagogue’s leaders remarked that the Molotov cocktails sent at them had barely breached their complex and they were reported to be part of a broader attack on official institutions in the island.
Calm will return in the medium term. Rioting embarrasses the opposition; tourism is increasing drastically thanks to greater numbers of Algerian visitors and the government, despite casting protests as criminals, is likely to make some concessions as indicated by the Islamist party in the coalition government, Ennahda. Protest numbers in the hundreds not thousands unlike 2011 Arab Spring.
In the background to these cyclical protests is an ever-present, thought under-reported, terrorist threat. Earlier in January, four men were arrested on suspicion of organizing financial flows with Moroccan terrorist cells. In December, the United Arab Emirates banned Tunisian women from travelling to their country, causing an uproar. This ban was nevertheless based on specific anti-terror information. Military operations fought militants near Kasserine in country’s western border with Algeria in November. The Algerian border was also the site of security forces’ raid on a terror cell in May 2017. In July, two German tourists were stabbed in an arts and crafts market in Nabeul. In March 2017, a Tunisian guard was shot dead by militants at a checkpoint near the southern town of Kebili. Protests erupted again in April in Tataouine, the famed Star Wars town, and in May 2017 when the army was deployed in Gafsa; both towns are in the south.
An important point to bear in mind is that the current breakdown in general order, the specific attacks by protesters on security offices as happened in Thala near the Algerian border, and the consumption of security officer time in reacting to the protests are providing a vacuum for cross-border terrorist activity and planning. 2100 troops have now been deployed in cities across the country. The longer disorder reigns in parts of the country, the greater the opportunities exist for weapons and materiel smuggling that provides the basis for “lone-wolf” and symbolic attacks on tourists.
By Idir Ouahes