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The News Line: Feature Violent protests in Tunisia
The Tunisian police violently attacked the protesters
VIOLENT protests broke out in at least ten towns in Tunisia on Monday evening as demonstrations over rising prices and tax increases spread throughout the North African country. A man was killed during a protest against government austerity measures in Tebourba, 40 km (25 miles) west of the capital Tunis, the interior ministry said.


He had chronic breathing problems and died due to suffocation from inhaling tear gas.

The protest had turned violent when security forces tried to stop some youths from burning down a government building, witnesses said. Five people were wounded and taken to hospital.

Tunisia, widely seen in the West as the only democratic success among nations where ‘Arab Spring’ revolts took place in 2011, is suffering increasing economic hardship. Anger has been building since the government said that, from January 1st, it would increase the price of gas, oil, some goods, and taxes on cars, phone calls, the internet, hotel accommodation and other items, part of austerity measures agreed with its foreign lenders.

The 2018 budget also raises customs taxes on some products imported from abroad, such as cosmetics, and agricultural products. The economy has been in crisis since a 2011 uprising unseated the government and two major militant attacks in 2015 damaged tourism, which comprises eight per cent of gross domestic product.

Tunisia is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to speed up policy changes and help the economy recover from the attacks.

There was also an angry protest in the capital on Monday evening. Residents said security forces had already dispersed small protests in Tunis late on Sunday. And on Monday about 300 people took to the streets in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the country’s Arab Spring revolution, carrying banners with slogans denouncing high prices.

A lack of tourists and new foreign investors pushed Tunisia’s trade deficit up by 23.5 per cent year-on-year in the first 11 months of 2017 to a record $5.8 billion, official data showed at the end of December. Concerns about the rising deficit have hurt the currency, the dinar, sending it to 3.011 versus the euro on Monday, breaking the psychologically important three dinar mark for the first time, and the currency is likely to weaken further.

Tunisian financial risk expert Mourad Hattab said: ‘The sharp decline of the dinar threatens to deepen the trade deficit and make debt service payments tighter, which will increase Tunisia’s financial difficulties.’ Hattab warned that the dinar may fall to 3.3 versus the euro in the coming months because of high demand for foreign currency and little expectation of intervention from the authorities.

Last year, former Finance Minister Lamia Zribi said the central bank would reduce its interventions so that the dinar steadily declined in value, but it would prevent any dramatic slide. The central bank has denied any plans to liberalise the currency but Hattab said Monday’s decline showed there was an ‘undeclared float’ of the dinar. A weaker currency could further drive up the cost of imported food after the annual inflation rate rose to 6.4 per cent in December – its highest rate since July 2014 – from 6.3 per cent in November.

• Defeated militarily in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State (ISIS) is regrouping in southern and central Libya, seeking to gain a foothold in areas torn apart by years of violence. With its capacity diminished, however, the jihadist group seems unable to seize large areas. It is reverting to hit-and-run tactics to destabilise the country.

‘ISIS has become the enemy of the vast majority of the Libyan people,’ a report released by the Atlantic Council concluded in June 2017.

The report, titled ‘The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya,’ indicated that ISIS suffered losses in the Libyan cities of Derna and Sirte ‘by killing too many people and brutally crushing resistance. I wouldn’t say the threat is “major" if we compare ISIS strength today to its potency in Libya two years ago,’ said Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs.

ISIS is believed to have about 1,000 fighters active in Libya with most of them in central areas where the jihadist group has kept a relatively low profile. ‘The modus operandi of ISIS seems more diffuse, more nimble and mobile across a large swath of territory,’ Harchaoui said.

However, ISIS’s presence in Libya appears sufficient to cause substantial damage, especially with the main Libyan factions more war-fatigued than they were one or two years ago. While experts do not expect ISIS to regain the influence it once had, its strategy has proved successful. Many fear that Libya could turn into the next front in the fight against ISIS.

‘We’ve seen ISIS attempt to establish a foothold in Libya,’ Mark Mitchell, the acting US assistant secretary of defence, said in December. ‘They have not been successful. We’ve managed to strike some of their training camps and set them back pretty significantly but it’s an area where I think we’ll see them continue.’ While the stings of military defeats in Syria and Iraq have thwarted ISIS’s goal of creating an Islamic caliphate, the organisation is far from dead.

In Libya, ISIS has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to carry out attacks against key targets. On October 4th, the group hit a courthouse in Misrata, killing four and wounding more than 40. The Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, has tried to keep the group at bay. Last August, ISIS reportedly attacked an LNA checkpoint in the southern town of Jufra, beheading nine fighters and two civilians.

ISIS is expected to continue such attacks in 2018. Analysts said ISIS wants to create a power vacuum after which it would step in to establish a caliphate. The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) said the United States would continue to support Libya’s counterterror efforts and protect its natural resources. ‘The United States stands by its Libyan counterparts and supports their efforts to combat terrorist threats and defeat ISIS there,’

AFRICOM spokeswoman Robyn Mack said, noting that ISIS is likely to plot attacks on eastern Libya’s oil crescent. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported Mack as saying: ‘At the moment, we believe that the organisation (ISIS-Libya) is likely to give priority to the restructuring of security forces and infrastructure, and to launch strikes, which may include targets in the Libyan oil crescent.’

LNA spokesman Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Mesmari confirmed the reports to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. ‘Yes, they have tried more than once to reach the oil crescent,’ he said. The strategic oil crescent, 500km east of Tripoli, holds the country’s largest oil reserves, as well as the ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf and Brega.

In view of a ferocious economic crisis, Libya can hardly afford attacks against its sole wealth-generating sector – oil installations. LNA units have conducted patrol missions in Libya’s oil crescent to monitor ISIS’s movements. The army also initiated air strikes, destroying ISIS camps near oil fields and ports.

The army is preparing to enter Derna, which is under the control of extremist militias, a senior Libyan military official said. The remaining ISIS pockets operate in the desert region of Sirte, which overlooks the oil crescent. The rugged terrain there includes many valleys and a vast stretch of desert, giving ISIS an advantage over advancing troops.
 
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