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Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Crisis Crunching: What CrisisWatch Says about Today’s Conflicts – and Tomorrow’s
Crisis Crunching: What CrisisWatch Says about Today’s Conflicts – and Tomorrow’s

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.

Exerpt from the January 2020 CrisisWatch interactive early warning system. CRISISGROUP

Crisis Crunching: What CrisisWatch Says about Today’s Conflicts – and Tomorrow’s

We reflect on a decade and a half of monitoring the world’s hotspots in CrisisWatch and look at what our monthly tracker reveals about the state of conflict now and coming trends.

The world seemed like a dangerous place when Crisis Group started producing a monthly conflict tracker, CrisisWatch, a couple of years into the new millennium. But as we enter the third decade of the 2000s, it is apparent that, if anything, the sense of foreboding back then was understated.

Around the world, wars and other crises are causing immense human suffering. Syria’s eight-year tragedy has left half a million people dead and more than half the population displaced. Ten million Yemenis are at the edge of starvation due to civil strife and outside intervention. Fighting in Afghanistan is killing more civilians in that country since the UN started collecting data. Venezuela’s political standoff has decimated living standards and driven more than four million people to abandon the country. An ever wider swathe of the Sahel is unstable, with rural areas wracked by intercommunal conflict and Islamist militancy. Overall, the number of people who have fled their homes due to violence has quadrupled since 2003 and is the highest it has been since the end of World War II. An unprecedented global refugee crisis strains stability across borders, one of many factors feeding into the narratives of right-wing populist movements from Hungary and Italy to Brazil, India, the Philippines and the U.S. Not only does the world’s collective ability to prevent mass atrocities and hold perpetrators accountable appear to have collapsed, but international norms and institutions once considered unassailable also are increasingly in question.

Soldiers in Niger’s Aïr desert in February 2019. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Back in 2003, when we were developing CrisisWatch, predominant international security concerns included nuclear weapons proliferation, transnational terrorism and state failure. The shock of the 9/11 attacks was raw and their immediate impact still unfolding. The ensuing U.S. invasion of Afghanistan had produced a new order in that country and, it appeared at the time, room for guarded optimism. The Iraq invasion was more evidently a disaster for regional stability and efforts to counter Islamist militancy, auguring an era of a counterproductive “war on terrorism”, and leading to a period of testy major power relations.

Overall, though, things looked slightly less ominous than they do today. Relations among major powers in the UN Security Council appeared to recover reasonably fast after the Iraq war and the gridlock did not bleed into other crises, few of which in any case were in areas of major geostrategic concern. Some of 2003’s hotspots remain salient today – the Democratic Republic of Congo, India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, Somalia. But the number of conflicts in the world, large and small, was considerably lower than it is now and the number of displaced people the fewest since the Cold War’s end. Many of today’s challenges – from the terrible wars and state collapse in the Middle East to the mass flight of Rohingya from Myanmar to the Russian annexation of Crimea and Brexit – were scarcely imaginable fifteen years ago.

For more than a decade and a half, CrisisWatch has tracked and distilled developments on conflicts or potential conflicts across the world. It draws upon the research of Crisis Group’s field-based experts to produce an unparalleled database of conflict trends. It aims to provide readers with a succinct regular update on hotspots, both crises in the headlines and those that are largely neglected. It offers a snapshot of the risks that conflicts will escalate as well as opportunities to end or avert them.

Protesters rally against the withdrawal of troops from Donbas during Ukraine’s Defender Day in Kyiv, October 2019. CRISISGROUP/Bogdan Voron

We started in 2003 with 60 countries, and we now regularly include well over 80. There are positive stories: countries that were fixtures in CrisisWatch in the 2000s no longer appear, from Sierra Leone and Liberia to Timor-Leste and Albania, Serbia and Montenegro (the latter until the start of this year, at least). But many countries have gone in the other direction. Much of North Africa and the Sahel – Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – makes it into CrisisWatch now when it did not a decade and a half ago. Our Latin America coverage has mushroomed to include violence related to drug trafficking and other crimes in Mexico and the Northern Triangle. In Asia, we have expanded our remit to include geopolitical tensions and rival claims in the South and East China Seas. Other countries have disappeared from coverage only to crop up again, among them Mozambique and Ukraine.

How Does CrisisWatch Work?

First, a word about CrisisWatch’s methodology. Each month, we assess with a Down, Up or Side arrow whether the situation in a given country has deteriorated, improved or on balance stayed the same. We also alert readers when we see, in the month ahead, a specific risk of escalation (a “bomb”) or an opportunity for resolution or de-escalation (a “dove”). Our arrows do not specify the scale of the deterioration or improvement. Nor do we set out to provide a quantitative analysis of global conflict.

Our assessments are context-specific. They derive from qualitative analysis based on the expertise of our analysts on the ground. Each month, we compare the situation in each country with that of the previous month. We do not compare countries with each other. As a result, to cite an example, an opposition leader’s conviction on corruption charges led to a Down arrow for Bangladesh in February 2018 because it fuelled the protests and political unrest gripping the country, which in turn helped create conditions for the possible resurgence of Islamist militancy. In another country, a similar arrest might not have merited that Down. Moreover, we might evaluate the situation in a country experiencing all-out war – Syria in June 2019, for instance – as unchanged if the scale of suffering and conflict dynamics are largely consistent with the previous month. Yet a reasonably peaceful country in which tensions are mounting, such as Tunisia that same month, we classify as deteriorated. All arrows are not equal, in other words.

Remains of the Sheikh Abdul Salam al-Asmar mosque in Zliten, Libya, after unidentified attackers believed to be part of the salafi-madkhali religious current attacked and detonated explosives inside the mosque, September 2012. CRISISGROUP/Claudia Gazzini

Because CrisisWatch makes monthly assessments, Down arrows are often due to more dramatic indicators of instability, whose significance we can identify thanks to our experts on the ground. For example, almost one quarter of the Down arrows in 2018 (30 of 127) related to terrorist attacks (usually amid an ongoing conflict) and violence around an insurgency (by insurgents or government forces) – in 2019, almost one third (48 of 164) did. One eighth of the Downs in 2018 related to deadly escalation in four places – Yemen, Syria, Somaliland and Afghanistan. This category featured prominently again in 2019 – more than one sixth of all Down arrows, with Yemen again and Libya among the top trouble-spots. Other causes of Down arrows included protests, either violent themselves or, more commonly, met with state violence – a category that shot up in 2019 with 33 Down arrows. In 2018, such disturbances prompted Down arrows four times in Israel-Palestine and twice in Nicaragua, while in 2019 this turmoil was behind five Downs in Sudan, three in Iraq, and two each in Venezuela, Honduras, Zimbabwe, Indonesia’s Papua region, Algeria and Guinea. Violence around elections was another common cause of Down arrows across sub-Saharan Africa; intercommunal violence, again mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Ethiopia, Mali and Nigeria in both 2018 and 2019, joined by Burkina Faso and Chad in 2019; and criminal violence (Honduras, Mexico and Nigeria’s north west).

Deteriorations can also be non-violent: worsening political situations (democratic backsliding and political crackdowns, for instance, that in a given case we might believe increases conflict risks – we saw examples in Burundi, Egypt and Sri Lanka in 2019); diplomatic standoffs (as in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, Iran, and between Venezuela and Colombia); or suspended dialogue (Colombia, the Korean peninsula and Kosovo). The diversity of reasons for Down arrows shows how CrisisWatch serves to track very different situations – and different trends within a given country. Nonetheless, more gradual deterioration – such as mounting interfaith tensions in Sri Lanka, growing political tensions in Pakistan, creeping repression in Burundi, or the increasingly untenable crisis of over 700,000 Myanmar Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh – is harder to mark with monthly arrows.

We believe that CrisisWatch is a useful tracker in itself: by regularly capturing and publicising trends, it plays a vital early warning and monitoring role.

In the same vein, CrisisWatch arrows tend to highlight negative more than positive trends, because improvements also tend to be more gradual. Think long-term stabilisation, strengthening of peace settlements and institutions, and structural factors like economic development and governance. Down arrows have outnumbered Ups by more than four to one over CrisisWatch’s lifetime. It is certainly true that the world has become less stable in this period, a trend illustrated by indicators including a significant increase in the number of conflicts and, at least until about 2015, a rise in the number of conflict deaths. But there may also be a predisposition inherent in CrisisWatch arrows toward the negative. There may be a wider bias in conflict analysis in general, since experts looking for risks will often warn of worrying more than heartening trends.

Because CrisisWatch does not capture longer-term developments and the arrows in themselves do not convey the magnitude of a deterioration or improvement, we are cautious about extrapolating wider trends from its coverage. Moreover, CrisisWatch is just one tool among the many of which Crisis Group’s work is comprised. For the majority of countries that we follow in CrisisWatch, we produce extensive field-based analysis and research that feeds into our reports and other publications, our policy recommendations, and our advocacy. We believe that CrisisWatch is a useful tracker in itself: by regularly capturing and publicising trends, it plays a vital early warning and monitoring role. But its full value lies in its contribution to Crisis Group’s work as a whole.

Looking Back at 2018 and 2019

Starting with the big picture, the last two years have been our most volatile on record, with 127 Down arrows and just 22 Ups in 2018, and 164 Downs and 18 Ups in 2019. These figures are the culmination of a decade of growing instability as measured by CrisisWatch arrows: after decreasing from 2008 to 2010, the annual number of Downs rose more or less steadily until 2017, before shooting up in 2018 and 2019 (see graph). While we need to be careful about drawing broader conclusions, since arrows can mean different things, the increasing volatility captured in CrisisWatch (seen also in the ratio of 67 “bombs” to just eleven “doves” in 2019) is backed up by other data on the number of conflicts since 2014. It is also visible in the increasing number of people displaced over the past ten years (from 43.3 million in 2009 to 70.8 million in 2018), and the threefold increase in humanitarian assistance funding needs (and growing funding gaps) since the start of the decade, much of it due to conflict. We have also seen more than a decade of declining political rights and civil liberties around the world.

Although 54 countries received Down arrows in 2018, just seven (of more than 80 we regularly track) accounted for about a third of those Downs (Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Yemen with six each, and Libya, Israel-Palestine and Somaliland with five – Somalia and Somaliland’s May and June Down arrows relating to the same crisis involving the Puntland region). Another fourteen countries or conflicts (Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Afghanistan, the Taiwan Strait and Kosovo) had three or four each, nine had two, and 24 had a single Down arrow over the year. In 2019, 68 countries received Down arrows, but just six countries accounted for almost one quarter of the total: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Libya and Somalia, with seven each, and Syria and Sudan with six apiece. Six countries had five Down arrows each (Chad, Mali, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Yemen), and ten countries had three (the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Georgia, Haiti, Honduras, Egypt and Saudi Arabia). Seventeen had two Down arrows, and 29 just one. The Up arrows tended to be much less concentrated. In 2019, twelve countries received a single Up arrow, with only Sudan and Yemen getting three each.

Turmoil in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa saw more Downs than any other region. CrisisWatch covers more countries in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else: almost one quarter of each month’s entries are in that region. Even so, the number of downs was proportionally much higher, at almost half the total – 60 of 127 in 2018, and 73 of 164 in 2019.

In both 2018 and 2019, more than one third of these Downs were in West Africa and the Sahel, charting jihadist attacks in Burkina Faso (accelerating in 2019), Mali, Niger and Nigeria; outbreaks of communal violence in Mali, Niger, Nigeria and in 2019 Burkina Faso; and rising political tensions in Guinea (three Downs in 2018 and two in 2019 as opposition supporters clashed with security forces in election-related unrest), Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and Togo. Increasing criminal violence and banditry was a factor in Mali in 2019, and in Nigeria, where we also saw evidence of climate change’s impact on conflict dynamics with worsening clashes between farmers and herders.

Other parts of Africa also saw conditions worsen. In Central Africa (fifteen Downs in 2018, twenty in 2019), we charted sometimes violent political crises and repression in Burundi, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo; insurgent attacks and clashes between armed groups and security forces in Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Chad; and violence around Cameroon’s Anglophone separatist struggle. We also had two Downs for intercommunal violence in Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

General Adamou Sidicki of the Central African Republic armed group UPC, talks to Crisis Group about challenges to the country’s peace process. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

In the Horn of Africa (sixteen Downs in 2018, nineteen in 2019), the situation in Somalia and Somaliland deteriorated more than any other in 2018, continuing into 2019 for Somalia, due to Al-Shabaab attacks, the flare-up between Somalia’s Puntland region and Somaliland, friction between Somalia’s central government and regional states, particularly Jubaland, and clashes between protesters and security forces. Sudan saw six Downs in 2019, with the heavy-handed repression of civilians protesting President Omar al-Bashir and the military regime that replaced him. The big movers in Southern Africa (seven downs in 2018, eight in 2019) were Zimbabwe, as security forces cracked down on demonstrators around a disputed July 2018 presidential election and into 2019, and Mozambique, where the tempo of Islamist militant activity increased.

Africa saw just eight Ups in 2018, four of them for two months of improving relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Ethiopia also got an Up for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s measures to mitigate ethnic tensions and relax restrictions on civil liberties, and Djibouti and Eritrea for signing a peace agreement; the other Up was for a ceasefire agreement between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar in June. Three of the six Ups in 2019 went to Sudan for its post-Bashir political transition and peace talks between the government and armed opposition, with Ups also for a peace agreement in Chad between the government and self-defence militia, reduced political tensions in Somaliland, and a decrease in violence following local peace initiatives in Mali.

Africa was also the region where our alerts (“bombs”) proved most prescient in 2019, being borne out in ten of 33 instances by events the following month: twice in Burkina Faso and Sudan, and once each in Benin, Cameroon, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique and Nigeria. Our Dove for Sudan in September (one of only two in Africa), for the possibility of peace talks between the government and armed opposition groups, also appears justified given subsequent events.

Libya, Syria and Yemen Lead the Middle East Down

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) came in next with 26 Downs in 2018, accounting for one fifth of the total number of Downs, and 40 Downs in 2019, one quarter of the total (a number all the more striking because MENA entries comprise only one fifth of the total number). The main drivers were developments in the region’s most active conflicts: Libya, Syria and Yemen. Yemen saw six Downs in 2018, marking worsening clashes between separatists and government forces, building up to a battle for Hodeida port city (fortunately averted to date), and the failure to start UN-led talks, and five Downs in 2019, for escalating fighting and setbacks in the December 2018 peace agreement, and Huthi cross-border attacks in Saudi Arabia. Syria, too, saw six Downs in both 2018 and 2019, due to worsening fighting between government and rebels, between different regional and international players – the U.S. (and its October 2019 withdrawal from the front lines), Russia, Turkey (and its assault on Kurdish forces), Iran and Israel – and their proxies, and between ISIS and its enemies in the east. Libya saw five Downs in 2018 and seven in 2019, for the escalation of fighting, new clashes over oil terminals in June 2018, worsening violence in Tripoli in starting in the second half of 2018, and the outbreak of hostilities between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army and the UN-backed Government of National Accord.

Amid growing political instability in much of the region, state violence against protesters also featured prominently in Israel-Palestine, which had five Downs in 2018, and in Algeria, Egypt, Iran and Iraq.

Another common factor in MENA was external intervention contributing to the worsening of conflict and raising risks of regional conflagration. In Syria, Downs followed the Turkish intervention against Kurdish-led forces in January, increased internationalisation of the conflict in February 2018 as U.S.- and Russian-aligned forces clashed in the east, Turkey entrenched its position in the north west, and Israel and Iranian-aligned forces clashed in the south (escalating in May), Russian-backed bombing of rebel enclaves in June, President Donald Trump’s December decision to withdraw U.S. troops, which we warned could precipitate new conflicts with a chaotic free-for-all in the north east, and in 2019 with Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets and Iranian retaliation. In Yemen, actions by the Saudi-led coalition drove Down arrows as fighting escalated around Hodeida in April and May 2018 (we gave Yemen a rare Up arrow in December when UN-led peace talks led to an agreement between the government and Huthis to withdraw forces from Hodeida).

Crisis Group President and CEO Robert Malley is shown war damage to the Yemeni capital Sanaa in July 2019. CRISISGROUP

The growing U.S.-Iran confrontation led to one Down arrow in 2018 and three in 2019. 2019 was also a year of worsening regional tensions, with Down arrows from suspected Israeli drone strikes on Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Lebanon in August, and from an alleged Iranian attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities in September leading to a sharp rise in tensions with Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

We were prescient with a number of “bombs” in MENA in 2019: three times for Yemen, twice each for Iraq and Libya, and once for Syria. Twice our Doves also proved warranted for Yemen, when we highlighted opportunities for de-escalation following the December 2018 agreement, and the possibility of an agreement between the government and southern separatists in November.

MENA had just two Up arrows in 2018, for the Yemen deal and the agreement between Russia and Turkey averting a Syrian government offensive in Idlib province in September. Three of MENA’s four Ups in 2019 were also in Yemen, for further progress in the peace agreement, and a deal in November to end hostilities in the south. The fourth Up was for the long-delayed formation of a new national unity government in Lebanon at the beginning of the year, although mass protests against austerity measures later forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign.

Asia Marred by Afghanistan’s Soaring Civilian Death Toll

Asia had nineteen Downs in 2018 and seventeen in 2019 (compared with just seven and four Up arrows). 2018 was dominated by Afghanistan’s steady deterioration, with four Downs for increased hostilities on all sides and major Taliban attacks on civilians in Kabul in January (in an inversion of the usual winter lull in fighting), worsening civilian attacks in April, intensified fighting and Taliban offensives in rural centres and provincial capitals in May, and a realisation of widely held fears that the troubled October parliamentary elections would be marred by violence and organisational problems. Meanwhile, 2019 brought a rollercoaster of hopes and setbacks for a possible U.S.-Taliban agreement and the potential for wider peace talks, though again against the backdrop of escalating violence in the Afghan countryside, reflected in three “doves”, an Up and a Down. We saw similar fluctuations on the Korean peninsula, which had three “doves”, four Ups and a “bomb” (one month with all three) in 2018, and an Up and two Downs in 2019, reflecting the course of negotiations between Kim Jong-un and President Trump.

Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka expert Alan Keenan at a memorial to the dead in Sri Lanka’s civil war in April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Other notable trends included growing geopolitical rivalry in East Asia, seen in the South China Sea, mounting U.S.-China competition, and increasing tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and examples of the role of social media in communal tensions in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. After a five-year period with just three Downs, Sri Lanka had five in the last two years: in 2018 for its worst outbreak of anti-Muslim violence since 2014 in March and a constitutional crisis in October, and in 2019 for the Easter terror attacks, the deadliest in its history, the ensuing spike in intercommunal tensions and anti-Muslim violence, and the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule threatening to exacerbate these trends and reverse commitments to post-war reconciliation and governance reforms. We also saw worsening political tensions, including around elections, in Bangladesh and Pakistan, new and escalating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and militancy in Kashmir – a precursor of worse to come in 2019, when tensions spiked between India and Pakistan, and New Delhi revoked the region’s special constitutional status and imposed a lockdown. Terrorist attacks and increased tensions in Papua resulted in four Downs for in Indonesia.

Steps to carry out peace agreements led to Up arrows in the Philippines, where Mindanao voters’ overwhelming ratification of a new political entity in early 2019 represented the culmination of efforts to implement the 2014 deal, and in Papua New Guinea, where Bougainville island finally held a referendum on independence at the end of 2019, part of a 2001 accord. In 2018, Ups marked improved relations between China and Japan, a political transition in the Maldives, and the resolution of Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis.

Political Instability Spreads in Latin America 

In Latin America, we saw eleven Down arrows and no Ups or alerts in 2018, when we were covering eight countries in the region. This number went up to 21 Downs in 2019, four of them in three Andean countries we had only rarely covered, if at all, previously – Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. Despite high levels of violence related to organised crime, most deteriorations owed to political crises: most visibly the dispute over Venezuela’s presidency (three Downs in 2018, five in 2019), but also protests and crackdowns in Nicaragua (not in CrisisWatch since 2011), Haiti, Guatemala and Honduras, and at the end of 2019 the wave of mass protests in their Andean neighbours, particularly Bolivia. Honduras had a Down in 2018 for the crisis triggered by the mass “migrant caravan” headed for the U.S. as people fled the region’s violence, while the country’s ongoing political deadlock after the 2017 electoral crisis impeded the government’s ability to respond. Colombia saw the suspension of peace talks between the government and the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, at the beginning of 2018 – another harbinger of worse to come in 2019, closely linked to the severe strain on the whole region from the socio-economic meltdown in Venezuela. Violence linked to organised crime was behind two Downs in Mexico in 2018, and one in Honduras in 2019.

Veneuelan refugees find shelter for the night in the Brazilian village of Pacaraima, near the Venezuelan border. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Latin America had no Ups in 2018, and just one in 2019, for a reduction in El Salvador’s homicide rate to the lowest registered in the century. Of four “bombs” for the region, one was borne out by events the following month, when we warned of the risk of escalating confrontation between Nicolás Maduro’s government and the opposition led by Juan Guaidó in February.

Rare Gleams of Hope in Europe and Central Asia

Europe and Central Asia also saw eleven Down arrows in 2018, for escalations in eastern Ukraine and the Sea of Azov, for a breakdown in the main negotiating forum among Russia, Georgia and the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and for unrest in the North Caucasus, but also rising tensions in the western Balkans, particularly between Kosovo and Serbia. Of twelve Downs in 2019, three were for Georgia, over tensions with Russia, internal political tensions leading to mass protests with outbreaks of violence, and rising tensions with South Ossetia. Downs also marked clashes along Nagorno-Karabakh’s Line of Contact in June, and tensions in Russia’s North Caucasus region. There were three Downs in Central Asia, for repression of protests during Kazakhstan’s carefully managed political transition, political violence in Kyrgyzstan, and alleged ISIS-linked attacks on a border post in Tajikistan. 2019 also saw our first Down explicitly for deteriorating Russia-U.S. relations and global arms control, with the suspension of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Two points of hope in 2018 were the setting-up of a direct line of communication between Azerbaijan and Armenia, to help prevent incidents in or around Nagorno-Karabakh, and the deal between North Macedonia and Greece ending a decades-long name dispute. A commitment by Armenia and Azerbaijan to strengthen the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire, improve communications and follow through with humanitarian projects led to another Up in 2019, as did implementation of the North Macedonia name agreement, although this process suffered a setback later in the year with the EU’s decision not to begin formal accession talks, which we marked with a Down arrow. Europe’s third Up for 2019 was also in the Balkans, with an agreement in Bosnia on a new government over a year after the October 2018 elections.

Shining a Light on Neglected Crises

As well as tracking up-to-the-minute developments in the world’s most prominent conflicts, CrisisWatch helps put on the radar crises that are largely unknown or ignored.

One of the countries with the largest number of CrisisWatch Downs over the past few years was Cameroon, which for a long time was very much outside the media spotlight. Our research on the ground in Cameroon had captured worsening security risks starting in 2009. From 2016 onward we chronicled how unrest in the country’s Anglophone areas evolved into an armed secessionist insurrection and how increasing Boko Haram activity in the far north helped the Islamist insurgency spread across the Lake Chad basin. Our work helped ring alarm bells, put the crisis on the agenda of policymakers in the region and beyond, and prompted (admittedly thus far limited) action by the government and Cameroon’s international partners. CrisisWatch coverage served as an important element of our work, enabling us to regularly draw attention to unfolding events and disseminate information to a general readership. In neighbouring Nigeria, also with a large number of Down arrows in 2018 and 2019, our CrisisWatch coverage, in tandem with our reports and commentaries, shed light on persistent conflict between herders and farmers in the country’s centre that had been neglected given the focus on Boko Haram. In this case, our work helped prompt more serious efforts by the Nigerian authorities to calm the violence.

Cameroonian soldiers in Poste de Mabass in the country’s Far North, March 2016. CRISISGROUP

There are similar examples outside Africa. In Afghanistan, where the plight of people in rural areas is largely overlooked, we flagged the devastating impact on civilians of fighting between Taliban and government forces and terror attacks in 2018, which the UN confirmed resulted in the highest annual civilian death toll in at least a decade. Again, this emphasis supported our wider strategy, strengthening our arguments for dialogue building on a June 2018 ceasefire and leading to U.S.-Taliban talks as a prerequisite for a peace process among Afghans. Nagorno-Karabakh is another longstanding yet mostly ignored conflict where CrisisWatch highlighted destabilising incidents in 2017 and tracked efforts to re-energise the settlement process between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the evolution of their leaders’ public statements, in concert with commentaries and advocacy aimed at easing tensions between the sides and establishing a military communications channel.

These examples illustrate CrisisWatch’s value, as a key component of Crisis Group’s work, in drawing necessary attention to low-profile crises or maintaining a focus on conflicts long after the world has lost interest. Crisis Group’s global coverage, and our network of expert analysts covering areas in conflict or at risk of sliding into it, is a valuable resource for monitoring, understanding and drawing attention to developments that might otherwise go unremarked until they have escalated to a level where prevention is too late. CrisisWatch is an important tool in Crisis Group’s kit for sounding the alarm. A monthly exercise assessing each country can help challenge our preconceptions and cognitive biases, forcing an appraisal of events that may have slipped below the radar. The exercise helps us flag situations where international attention is not focused, and reminds us that beyond the major wars we see in the headlines every day, there are dozens of countries at risk, where early action can help prevent tensions from spiralling out of control.

Looking Ahead

Crisis Group’s mandate is the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict. We see CrisisWatch as just one means of fulfilling this mission, drawing on the same field-based analysis that goes into our detailed reporting and underlies our policy recommendations aimed at providing early warning and mobilising early action. The Down arrows, which are used after a significant and usually visible deterioration, can usefully identify risks in the month ahead, shining a light on where security is eroding and risks of unrest and violence growing. Looking again at the surge in humanitarian funding needs, it is easy to see the value of knowing in close to real time of troubling developments in the world’s most precarious regions. CrisisWatch now attracts more than 13,400 views of its pages on our website every month. Readers in governments, NGOs, international organisations, media and academia tell us that they value both the information in our monthly conflict tracker and the arrows and alerts.

Sitting next to Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Crisis Group’s former Research Manager Amelia Branczik moderates an event on the Venezuelan crisis and security in Latin America, October 2019. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

As we reflect on more than a decade and a half of tracking conflict in a world that has changed in so many ways, we are also looking to the future, and how to ensure that CrisisWatch addresses challenges to stability in a shifting security landscape.

Looking at sixteen years of CrisisWatch confirms that the events of the early 2000s ushered in a period of instability and risk. In this light, it is sobering to look at the omens today as we cover emerging sources of tensions and conflict – great power competition or disengagement blocking opportunities for peace, a new arc of instability in the Sahel, growing instances of conflict where climate change plays a role, large-scale protests shaking authoritarian and democratic governments alike, and the growing impact of new technology.

We are working constantly to ensure that CrisisWatch takes into account this fast-changing environment and reflects the actions of major global powers as a source of instability. In the last year alone, we have had Down arrows for a setback in global arms control and for far-right terrorism with transnational links in New Zealand (in contrast with occasions when we have tracked large-scale Islamist terrorist attacks in Western countries). We’ve marked growing popular protest movements, both in countries that we’ve been monitoring for years and in some, like Chile, that have never appeared in CrisisWatch before.

We are also constantly reviewing how we present our analysis to make it more accessible and reach wider audiences. Each month’s issue is now accompanied by a reflection on major trends by Crisis Group’s President and CEO Robert Malley, and we have plans for greater online visualisation of our conflict tracking.

In such an unpredictable world, and one with multiplying threats to stability, all signs point to the need for CrisisWatch to continue tracking current conflicts and providing early warning of potential new ones.

For a fuller explanation of our methodology, see our “About CrisisWatch” web page and International Crisis Group, “Response to ‘Is the World Deteriorating?’”, Global Governance, vol. 21, n°1 (2015), pp. 9-18.