New Tunisian government faces immediate challenges
TUNIS - About 40 al-Qaeda assailants came down from a mountain in north-western Tunisia to ambush a military convoy, killing three soldiers just days after the country’s seventh government in five years received parliament’s endorsement.
Tunisian Defence Ministry spokesman Belhassen Oueslati said the attackers were from the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, the Tunisian affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
About 14km from that attack, at least three suspected Islamic State (ISIS) militants were spotted near police and military outposts in Kasserine, which has been a hotbed of social unrest. Government troops subsequently killed two jihadists and captured a third in a working-class neighbourhood in Kasserine.
Interior Ministry spokesman Yasser Mosbah said the suspected ISIS members used motorcycles to survey police and army positions in the city and stayed at ten different safe houses to escape police surveillance.
The incidents were stark reminders of the threat terrorism poses for the new government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who received a memo from his predecessor, Habib Essid, on the terrorism problem as he was leaving office.
“The terrorism phenomenon is a severe and dangerous phenomenon which has the ability to continue, develop and expand because it is related to several issues and regional and international dimensions that support and feed it,” Essid said in the memo, which was released to the media.
“Terrorism has domestic bases that sustain its development from a pool of human sympathisers and new recruits from jihadists returning from conflict zones abroad.”
With jihadists holed up in mountain hideouts, a difficult-to-control border with Libya and hundreds of people returning after fighting in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Tunisia has become a ripe target for extremist Islamists.
Since the “Arab spring” dawned on Tunisia in 2011, militants loyal to AQIM or ISIS have been hiding out in the mountains near the Algerian border. The Tunisian Army has found it difficult to dislodge them and has lost dozens of soldiers in the process.
The chaos in neighbouring Libya, where rival militias — some openly loyal to ISIS — are vying for power and oil wealth, has hit Tunisia hard. In some border areas, contraband smuggling with Libya is the only source of income and closing the border is effectively impossible.
Tunisian media quoted security officials as saying that “hundreds” of ISIS members, who were trained in Libya, were preparing to infiltrate Tunisia to carry out attacks with the help of sleeper cells in Tunisian cities, including Sousse and other coastal towns.
The officials said security forces had foiled attempts by jihadists to infiltrate Tunisia from Libya in recent months.
The new Tunisian government is confronted by the terrorism challenge as well as the risk of social unrest. The main trade unions are clamouring for more jobs in the bloated public sector and wage increases in the private sector at a time the government is contemplating austerity measures that include firing workers and cutting salaries.
Chahed has yet to get support to tackle such unrest from his nominal allies in the Government of National Unity. His cabinet is theoretically backed by seven political groups and three main social organisations, including the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). Their effective support is far from guaranteed.
The UGTT warned the government against taking austerity measures and called for the hiring of thousands of employees in government, education, health and other social sectors. It urged authorities to increase the salaries of workers in the ailing tourism industry.
Even Rached Ghannouchi, head of Islamist Ennahda party, which is the main partner in the ruling government, told the inhabitants of the Gafsa region, another hotbed of unrest, on August 28th that they should not go hungry while phosphate production is shipped out of their province.
The new prime minister is aware of the risks ahead. “We will not allow interruption of production at any factory and we will be firm and severe in dealing with illegal strikes and sit-ins,” Chahed warned lawmakers on August 26th. “If the situation continues like this, then in 2017 we will need a policy of austerity and dismiss thousands of public sector employees and impose new taxes.”