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The assassination of President Jovenel Moise has thrown Haiti into a dangerous phase of its long-running political crisis.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 9 July 2021.

The interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, has said that he is in charge of the government, and for now the security forces are following his orders. But there is considerable uncertainty over the legality of his position, his plans for a political transition, and how politicians, gangs and the security forces would respond to them.

Tense calm

The situation in Port-au-Prince has remained relatively calm since Mr Moise’s killing on 7 July. Sporadic armed confrontations have occurred as police have attempted to capture those behind the assassination, though these have been concentrated around the Petionville area of the city. There have been some protests but these have not been particularly large or widespread. And while the land border with the Dominican Republic remains closed, the international airport in Port-au-Prince has now reopened for commercial travel.

The political situation in the coming days will probably remain tense. There is confusion over who is the rightful prime minister; Mr Moise had named Ariel Henry to replace Claude Joseph on 6 July. Still, the UN and the US have acknowledged Mr Joseph’s legitimacy as the head of government. And Mr Henry has publicly said that he does not want to ‘fan the flames’. The security forces also appear to have obeyed Mr Joseph’s order to impose a national ‘state of siege’ until at least 22 July.

Triggers for breakdown in law or order

The main threat to stability in the coming weeks and months is competition among political elites taking hold that lead to severe and widespread violence in the country. Other periods of instability over the past few years have involved civil unrest and intense gang violence against the security forces, seemingly with the aim of making the country ungovernable. Critics have accused influential Haitian politicians or business leaders of having links to gangs and directing them to carry out acts to destabilise the country.

There is little public information about Mr Joseph’s backing among such stakeholders. But precedent suggests those opposed to him could instigate such a crisis at very short-notice and with little forewarning. Indeed, our standing assessment is that a breakdown of law and order in Haiti is a reasonable possibility. This is given the current level of uncertainty on the streets, and the opportunity that this would present those looking to expand their power.

There are two main triggers for a period of violence and lawlessness. The first involves developments in the investigation into Mr Moise’s assassination. We are aware of several rumours circulating in Haitian political circles that different Haitian political or business elites with links to local gangs were involved in organising the killing. Given such allegations the government publicly accusing a particular individual or group of being involved the assassination, or the police attempt to arrest them, would make a period of severe violence in the capital highly likely.

A second trigger would be if Mr Joseph fails to hold, or delays, fresh national elections. He has committed to holding presidential and legislative elections on 26 September (he has not said if a controversial constitutional referendum due to take place the same day will also occur). President Moise had delayed legislative elections scheduled for October 2019. And so signs that Mr Joseph intends to renege on this, and is trying to extend his period in power, would probably also prompt more intense gang violence, as well as violent protests and unrest.

A period of such violence and unrest would make a coup more likely. We assess that the most likely trigger for a move against Mr Joseph would be if a period of civil unrest or gang violence were so prolonged, widespread and intense that the Haitian security forces were no longer able to cope. Based on the conduct of the security forces amid recurring periods of civil unrest and crisis in recent years, we believe that this would mostly likely involve senior military leaders in concert with influential politicians forcing Mr Joseph to stand aside or arresting him.

Image: Interim prime minister Claude Joseph speaks during a press conference in Port-au-Prince on 8 July; Richard Pierrin/Getty Images