ISIS Fighters and Austerity Protests Threaten Tunisia Peace 7 Years After Jasmine Revolution

Anti-austerity protests in Tunisia could soon escalate into violent riots if discontent youths returning home after fighting with the Islamic State terrorist group hijack them, a counter-terrorism expert has warned.

At least 300 people have been arrested in several cities in violent demonstrations over prices, taxes and unemployment that have swept the country since Monday (January 8).

"Three hundred and thirty people involved in acts of sabotage and robbery were arrested last night," interior Ministry spokesman Khelifa Chibani said, bringing the number of detainees since the protests began to around 600.

Uprisings in 2011 and two major militant attacks in 2015 damaged foreign investment and tourism, which accounts for eight percent of Tunisia's economic activity.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed on Wednesday accused the opposition of fueling dissent by calling for more protests.

The country's economy has suffered since a wave of pro-democracy protests rocked several countries in the Middle East and north Africa in 2011.

The unrest, later dubbed as the "Arab Spring", began in Tunisia following the self-immolation of fruit and vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. The 26-year-old and later died in hospital - after police had confiscated his produce, which he was selling illegally, being unable to find a job.

His death sparked nationwide protests, named the "Jasmine revolution", resulted in the overthrow of then Tunis president Zine El Abidine Ben Al, who had been in power for 23 years.

Tunisia protests
Riot police clash with protesters during demonstrations against rising prices and tax increases, in Tunis, Tunisia, January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

While Tunisia is widely seen as the only democratic success story among "Arab Spring" nations, it has also had nine governments since the overthrow of Ben Ali, none of which have been able to deal with growing economic problems.

"It is an inglorious anniversary of the Arab Spring. Contrary to promises by successive governments, promises of economic changes have been followed by austerity measures that have been contrary to expectations," UK-based security analyst David Otto told Newsweek.

He added that, due to malcontent over economic hardship and unemployment, many Tunisian youths have joined the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and Iraq in recent years. The country has the highest per capita rate of citizens, at least 6,000, who fled to join the group, according to City Lab research group.

Tunisia protests
Tunisian activist speaks in front of anti-government protesters in Tunis, Tunisia, January 10, 2018 in this picture taken from social media. TWITTER/@FADILALIRIZA/via REUTERS

"Many of these youths were disappointed with the negative outcome of the Jasmine revolution," Otto explained.

The Tunisia Interior Ministry said in December 2016 that at least 800 fighters were believed to have returned home.

As ISIS lost its strongholds in Syria and Iraq last year, many foreign fighters have abandoned the group. Some of them are hiding in other countries, while others are returning to their homeland.

"Now that most of these fighters are returning from Iraq and Syria, more angry and with guns, it should not be a surprise that these riots could take a different dimension if not well managed.

"The government must be tactful in handling the situation and avoid applying a 'hammer strategy' to crack down on angry protesters," he concluded.