Jihadists will look to conduct attack in Tunisia during Ramadan to try to provoke instability amid rising public anger over economy
Adel Dridi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire on 10 May in front of a police station in the town of Tebourba, 35 km west of Tunis, in protest against local officers who had banned him from selling strawberries. He was taken to hospital with second degree burns, but is now in a stable condition. The incident sparked a riot in which several hundred young men marched through the town, setting fire to cars and throwing stones at police. Security forces responded quickly and used gas to disperse the crowds.
As discussed last time, domestic and regional instability in recent years has significantly weakened Tunisia’s economy. This has resulted in sustained low-level unrest, primarily in the south-eastern Tataouine Governorate, where protests calling for greater job opportunities are ongoing. The riot in Tebourba was triggered by similar anxieties, specifically by police action that had prevented Dridi from working, and Dridi himself said in a press interview on 17 May that “people are awaiting the slightest spark to let out their frustration”. This reflects the rising level of public anger over the economy, and this will increase the risk of protests.
In a sign that the Government is aware of the threat economically-motivated protests could pose to stability, President Essebsi ordered the Army to protect oil and gas production facilities in the South on 10 May. That said, larger protests remain unlikely to cause wider political instability. Despite the fact that Dridi’s self-immolation echoes that of Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, which sparked the 2011 uprising, roughly 15% of annual suicides are by this method, and such incidents do not typically trigger unrest. Furthermore, ordinary Tunisians will be reluctant to provoke any significant unrest for fear that this would further damage the economy, and so benefit extremists as it has in neighbouring Libya. Unrest will therefore pose no major challenge to the Unity Government, particularly since the main opposition parties will not want to be seen as jeopardising the country’s democratic transition.
Nonetheless, jihadists will seek to exploit the political tensions by conducting an attack that would provoke greater instability. Indeed, security forces claimed to have killed a member of Islamic State (IS) on 30 April who was planning attacks during Ramadan, which is scheduled to begin around 27 May. This suggests that there will be an increased threat over the fasting month. Attacks will likely be isolated, and target security forces in retaliation for their successful anti-jihadist operations since IS’s major attacks in Tunis and Sousse in 2015. However, the security forces’ crackdown since that time has been effective, and this will help to mitigate the risk of any larger-scale violence.