Bottom Line: The assassination on 6 February of opposition politician Chokri Belaid, a notable opponent of the Islamist-led government, is the trigger that will push the ongoing political crisis and socio-economic unrest over the edge.
The public response to the shooting of Belaid outside his home in the capital Tunis was immediate and country-wide. Protests, always ongoing, have erupted with a renewed force giving a common voice to what will be a definitive popular uprising. Islamist officials had late last year warned of a military coup, which may now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Analysis: Unlike Egypt, Tunisia has a secular president, while the government is controlled by Islamic forces. The past few weeks have seen intensified political horse-jockeying over a cabinet reshuffle prompted by an increase in violent strikes and protests across the country. Consensus could not be reached, and attempts to get the Islamist parties to give up key ministries like security and justice failed.
The assassination takes this political conflict to another, irreversible level, and Tunisia offers them a pipeline of weapons and fighters from Libya and elsewhere if the most radical Islamist forces wish to throw in their support. In mid-January, only days before the attack on the Amenas gas facility in Algeria, Tunisia authorities discovered to arms depots in the south, home to Tunisia’s hydrocarbon reserves, and also along the route to Libya. These depots contained a shopping list of equipment mirroring that necessary to launch the Amenas attack. It is clear that another attack had already been planned.
Tunisia still has only an interim government that is under immense pressure. January has seen continual protests specifically against the Islamist government, while the economic situation deteriorates along with political deadlock over a new constitution that would allow for new elections. The rural areas are seething with socio-economic unrest and 80% unemployment in the poorest areas and ongoing strikes elsewhere. This assassination is the trigger than will things to a climax in the capital.
Recommendation: Some foreign investors who have personnel but not physical facilities in Tunisia have already seen what this means and where it leads, and have begun to make plans to pull out, according to our intelligence. This does not include the energy sector, but here is where we would caution strongly, particularly in the wake of the Algeria attack and the discovery of very specific arms depots in the south.