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Has the “Arab Spring” Returned to Tunisia?

On January 9, 2018, in many Tunisian cities and villages, including the capital Tunis, thousands of residents demonstrated in protest of price and tax increases as part of the government’s plan to carry out a series of economic reforms.

According to reports, looting incidents were recorded. During the riots, demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails trying to set fire to the famous Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba.  No one was injured, reported the son of the synagogue president.

The Djerba synagogue

The Djerba synagogue during Lag B’Omer celebrations circa 1960. (Harvard/Central Zionist Archives)

The protests continues to sizzle underneath the surface of Tunisia, even after the changes in the Tunisian government following the Arab Spring that led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The protests, especially in the southern regions, are mainly against high unemployment rates and rising fuel prices. Similar demonstrations last year led to the stoppage of oil production for months and caused a high loss in oil revenues.

The protest organizers from both union organizations and civil society called for the continuation of the demonstrations. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed called for calm, while at the same time affirming the right to demonstrate in the streets. The prime minister warned that the situation could deteriorate into violence and declared that he would not “tolerate such a situation.” Chahed promised that despite the difficulties in the economic plan, this would be a better year for Tunisians. “People have to understand that Tunisia faces many challenges, but 2018 will be the last difficult year for the Tunisians,” he said.  At the same time, the prime minister met with demonstrators in the street accompanied by his bodyguards.

The opposition parties also called for the continuation of the demonstrations until the cancellation of the “unjust budget of 2018,” including the raising of prices and taxes. Hamma Hammami, the leader of the Popular Front opposition party, called on the opposition groups to continue coordination of the protest and promised “to stay in the streets and to increase the intensity of the demonstrations until the retraction of this budget.”

The rise in prices that came as a result of the economic reform is part of the guarantees given by the state to the International Monetary Fund, as part of a package of benefits it received for the rehabilitation of its economy.

The Safety Valve to Relieve Demonstrators’ Anger

The security forces in Tunisia are very sympathetic to the demonstrators and often avoid force to dispersing demonstrations, let alone shooting at demonstrators. One protester apparently died of tear gas inhalation.

This security forces’ behavior is a key factor in Tunisia’s success in preventing the demonstrations from degenerating into violent protest. The Tunisian government allows the demonstrations to release steam, while at the same time trying to promote reforms to improve the economy.

This policy, along with the cooperation of the Islamic Ennahdha [Renaissance] Party, a partner in the coalition, has made Tunisia the only success story of the “Arab Spring,” and it appears that despite the difficulties it will continue to show stability despite the internal protest.

At the same time, Tunisia continues to wage war on terror and conducts a long campaign against Islamic State activists within its borders, largely thanks to the aid of Western intelligence. In this context, it should be noted that many Tunisians went to fight in the jihadi front in Syria and Iraq, and in fact, Tunisia is one of the leaders in the field of “exporting jihadists.”

About Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.
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