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CrisisWatch 2018 January Trends & February Alerts
CrisisWatch 2018 January Trends & February Alerts
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Commentary

CrisisWatch 2018 January Trends & February Alerts

The latest edition of Crisis Group's monthly conflict tracker highlights dangers of new conflict in Somaliland, Afghanistan and Syria. CrisisWatch also notes that February's winter Olympics on the Korean Peninsula represent a chance for peace against a great background risk of war.

January saw violence rise in Afghanistan, likely to continue in February as conflict parties compete to gain the upper hand ahead of spring offensives. Clashes look set to escalate in north-west Syria, with the regime ramping up its push against rebels and Turkey launching an assault on Kurdish-held Afrin. In Yemen, southern separatists fought government forces, their erstwhile allies, to take control of Aden city in the south. In West Africa, both Mali and Niger experienced a rise in jihadist violence, in Nigeria deadly attacks between herders and farmers spiralled, and Equatorial Guinea said it had thwarted an attempted coup. In the Horn of Africa, Somaliland troops clashed with neighbouring Puntland’s forces and both sides looked to be preparing for more hostilities. In Colombia, peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army were suspended following a spate of guerrilla attacks. The Venezuelan government’s announcement of early elections sparked a crisis of confidence in talks with the opposition. Meanwhile, peace talks between North and South Korea provide an opportunity for de-escalation, however the threat of war on the peninsula is higher now than at any time in recent history.

With peace talks stalled, Afghanistan experienced a rise in deadly attacks by all armed actors, at a tempo and intensity that could persist as conflict parties try to gain the upper hand ahead of spring offensives. The Afghan National Security Forces claimed to have killed about 2,000 Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) fighters since late December, while attacks by the Taliban and the IS-KP have left scores dead. In one incident in Kabul claimed by the Taliban, a bomb in an ambulance killed more than 100. Recognising that Afghanistan risks facing escalating violence in 2018, Crisis Group has stressed that diplomatic channels should be preserved and a political settlement pursued.

In Syria’s north west, Turkey’s air and land offensive against Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” (YPG) in Afrin, and regime advances against rebels in Hama and Idlib provinces, marked a severe escalation and paved the way for worse fighting in February. As we warned, Turkey’s offensive among a hostile population and in difficult territory could easily become a prolonged fight against a gritty insurgency, further strain its alliance with the YPG’s main backer, the U.S., and provoke Kurdish attacks at home. A deal would serve both sides better. In Yemen’s port city of Aden, southern separatists – nominally allied with the government in its fight against Huthi rebels – routed government forces from much of the city; dozens died in the fighting.

Suspected jihadist gunmen and suicide bombers in Mali upped deadly attacks against the military and French Barkhane forces, especially in Ménaka region in the east. In neighbouring Niger, Boko Haram militants increased attacks against the army in the south east, killing at least ten soldiers. To confront these rural insurgencies in the Sahel, in tandem with military efforts, authorities and foreign partners should promote local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives and, where possible, try to engage militant leaders. Nigeria’s expanding conflict between herding and farming communities spiralled in January with at least 200 killed across five states. Also in West Africa, Equatorial Guinea said it had foiled a coup attempt; 39 mercenaries were arrested in southern Cameroon.

Tensions between Somaliland and Puntland state in Somalia turned violent when on 8 January Somaliland troops seized the town of Tukaraq in the disputed Sool region, pushing out Puntland forces. With fighters exchanging fire on 28 January and both sides reportedly mobilising more manpower, February could see further hostilities.

In Colombia, amid a climate of mistrust at the negotiating table and a general atmosphere of public scepticism and apathy, peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group were suspended on 29 January following a spate of guerrilla attacks. In Venezuela, the government’s announcement that it will hold early elections “before 30 April”, in defiance of ongoing talks with the opposition, sparked a crisis of confidence in the talks, greatly reducing the prospects of a viable agreement to resolve the political standoff.

In Kosovo, the murder of moderate Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic in Mitrovica on 16 January triggered shock and condemnation within Kosovo and by the U.S., EU and others in the international community, who called for all sides to remain calm, exercise restraint and avoid dangerous rhetoric.

North and South Korea conducted multiple rounds of peace talks in January and agreed to conduct several joint activities in the coming months. This came after Seoul responded positively to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s offer of immediate and unconditional talks with South Korea in his annual New Year’s address. As Crisis Group reports state, the thaw in relations offers an opportunity to dial down tensions and reduce the immediate risk of conflict through some form of de-escalatory deal between the U.S. and North Korea. Nevertheless, the threat of catastrophic war on the peninsula is higher now than at any time in recent history, and escalation could quickly resume after the Olympics.

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Director of Research & Special Adviser on Gender
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Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

Divisions within Tunisia’s political leadership are preventing the government from addressing the country’s political and socio-economic challenges. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support measures that will prevent further polarisation.

Tunisia’s political transition is in trouble. Hopes that the country’s post-uprising leadership would successfully tackle its myriad of political and socio-economic challenges have started to dim. The economy is in the doldrums and the political leadership is increasingly split between Islamists and non-Islamists, both competing for control of state resources. This confluence of problems is stirring a general crisis of confidence in the political elite, and there is reason to fear that the country may backslide from its post-2011 democratic opening ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls at the end of the year.

As Tunisia’s main trading partner, and in the context of its European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU should:

  • Continue its macro-financial assistance despite the government’s slow pace in implementing necessary reforms (eg, pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate and greater fiscal transparency, among others);
     
  • Encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reforms, introduce greater transparency in public-sector appointments and transfers, and establish clear rules governing relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that can help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists;
     
  • Encourage parliament to reach agreement on creating a politically diverse Constitutional Court to ensure its independence;
     
  • Resist attempts to restore an authoritarian regime by, for example, conditioning continued financial support to Tunisia on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.
     

An Ailing Economy and Polarisation at the Top

The economy is faring poorly. The Tunisian dinar has depreciated by more than 40 per cent in relation to the euro since 2016, reducing purchasing power, while inflation stands at 8 per cent annually. As a result, the cost of living has increased by more than 30 per cent since 2016, driving households into debt. Regional disparities are growing, and unemployment remains dire. These factors combined have accelerated both a brain drain and capital flight.

These economic troubles occur at a time of severe tensions between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, which have grown over the past two years. Their rivalry has laid bare an old rift between Islamists (mainly the An-Nahda party) and anti-Islamists (represented by Nida Tounes, the president’s party), with Chahed, who originally hails from Nida Tounes relying on the Islamist bloc’s parliamentary dominance to remain in office.

An-Nahda has been in coalition governments since 2011, but from 2016 onward, when Chahed became head of a national unity government, the party has worked hard to strengthen its power by placing a growing number of its supporters in senior posts in the public administration, state-owned companies and government offices and agencies in the capital and provinces. In doing so, it is changing in its favour the composition of patronage networks controlling state resources and access to credit, private monopolies and oligopolies. Over time, this inevitably will reduce the economic predominance of coastal northern Tunisia over the southern hinterland.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists.

In May 2018, An-Nahda made headway in local elections. It won 28 per cent of municipal council seats (against 20 per cent for Nida Tounes), including in all the main cities. The next month, it took charge of the administration in 36 per cent of all municipalities (compared with 22 per cent for Nida Tounes). This partial victory boosted the party’s political weight, altered the balance of power vis-à-vis its principal opponent, and raised a question mark over the tacit agreement between Islamists and anti-Islamists in place since the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. By this unwritten agreement, An-Nahda had accepted less power than its electoral weight would suggest it should have, with just three ministries, none a major one; it had also agreed not to interfere with the established patronage networks, for example by placing its backers in senior executive positions.

Its electoral show of strength triggered a response from an inchoate coalition of senior figures in government, business and professional associations and trade unions, as well as far-left activists and Arab nationalists. They started to pressure the interior and justice ministries to classify the Islamist party as a terrorist organisation, and on the military courts to dissolve it and imprison some of its leaders. They also began reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in hopes of soliciting these two countries’ support against An-Nahda, whose leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is a leading intellectual figure among the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood, their staunch enemy. The resurfacing of this rift invites a return to Tunisian politics of political competition that has dominated the Middle East and North Africa region since 2013 – between Turkey and Qatar, representing the Islamist bloc, on one side, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It also would significantly heighten political and social tensions ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections later this year, which could well prove decisive in shaping the country’s political and economic complexion for the next decade. Because of a split in the secularist camp, An-Nahda’s enduring popularity among large sectors of the population and its dominance of governing institutions, the party remains the favourite to win at least the parliamentary elections. Even were this scenario to pass, the Islamists’ power could be circumscribed. It will need to cobble together a governing coalition, and optimally will be willing once again to forgo key ministries and maintain its tacit agreement with the anti-Islamists. An-Nahda’s influence would be further curbed were it to put up a presidential candidate and loose.

However, other scenarios are possible. If tensions come to a head before the elections, violence could get in the way of the electoral process. This could prompt the president to declare a state of emergency, as provided for under the constitution, but without additional constitutional checks, this could put Tunisia back on the path of autocratic rule. For this reason, it is critical that the parliament establish a Constitutional Court, which would adjudicate whether the state of emergency can be extended thirty days after its entry into force. The court should have a politically diverse composition that might help to prevent it from endorsing such a move. Indeed, under this scenario, the absence of a Constitutional Court could plunge Tunisia into dangerous waters.

An EU Role in Preventing a Dangerous Backsliding

The EU is Tunisia’s main trading partner and has provided important financial support to the country (between 2011 and 2017, EU assistance to Tunisia amounted to € 2.4 billion in grants and macro-financial assistance). It has a clear interest in protecting Tunisia’s stability, to fortify one of the only – if not the only – success story to emanate from the Arab uprisings, dampen the appeal of jihadism to Tunisians, and limit illegal migration to Europe. It follows that, despite the disappointing pace of economic and political reforms (pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate, greater fiscal transparency, advancing negotiations about the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, creating the Constitutional Court and replacing four members of the Independent High Authority for Elections so that this body can move forward with organising the legislative and presidential elections of late 2019), the EU should continue to provide macro-economic support to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.

In addition, it should encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reform, render public-sector appointments and transfers more transparent, and introduce clear rules governing its relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that, by reducing the role of partisan patronage would help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It should also encourage political parties to reach agreement in parliament about the composition of the Constitutional Court, thus enabling its establishment. And it should use its influence to counterbalance any domestic or externally-inspired effort to restore an authoritarian regime by making continued financial support to Tunisia conditional on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.