Tinderbox: An Assassination Brings the Spotlight Back to Tunisia

Outrage over the killing of secularist opposition leader Chokri Belaid spills into the streets. Will Tunisia — the birthplace of the Arab Spring — be plunged into a new round of turmoil?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Amine Landoulsi / AP

Protesters surround the ambulance carrying the body of Chokri Belaid after he was shot to death in Tunis on Feb. 6, 2013

Tunisians complain that their country never got the full credit it deserved for starting the Arab Spring: the young revolutionaries who stormed Kasbah Square two years ago had barely removed their longtime dictator from office — an astonishing achievement at the time — before their thunder was stolen by copycats in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. As the fruits of the Spring have been soured by ugly, often violent political conflict, Egypt has monopolized the world’s attention. Tunisia’s own postrevolutionary complications have gotten little notice.

That’s about to change. The assassination of a prominent opposition leader on Wednesday morning has brought protesters back to Kasbah Square, along with the world’s TV cameras. How the mostly secular-minded protesters behave over the next few days — and how the Islamist-dominated government reacts — will determine whether the tiny nation on the Mediterranean descends into chaos or shows the rest of the Arab world how to deal with political crisis without vindictiveness and violence.

(PHOTOS: Tunisia’s Tumultuous Month)

The ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist movement, has been quick to denounce the murder, by a gunman on a motorcycle, of Chokri Belaid, a leftist politician and outspoken critic of the government. But many of his supporters believe the Islamists are at least culpable — and possibly responsible — for Belaid’s killing. They say it is the climax of a rising trend of political intimidation and violence, most of it directed against secular groups.

Belaid, a leader of the Popular Front, claimed in a recent television interview that Ennahda had given a “green light” for political assassinations. He also called for a national conference to discuss the growing violence. Although most of the violence leading up to his assassination has been blamed on Salafist groups that are to the far right of Ennahda, opposition figures, as well as some human-rights organizations, have blamed the government for indulging hatemongering religious groups and for failing to act when violence has been committed.

Rights groups and leftist politicians like Belaid have accused the Ennahda-led government of being too lax in its approach to political and religious violence.

(MORE: The View from Algiers: The Islamist Threat in Next-Door Tunisia)

Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki, himself a leftist politician who was appointed by Ennahda after 2011’s general elections in an attempt to placate secular groups, has called on his countrymen to show restraint in the wake of Belaid’s killings. He has advised Tunisians “not to be hasty in analyzing this crime and cowardly act or to blame one side or another for it.”

As yet, the protests at Kasbah Square and other places across Tunisia have mostly been nonviolent, just like the demonstrations that ousted President Ben Ali two years ago. But there have been sporadic reports of clashes between protesters and riot police, who have responded with tear gas. Opposition groups have called for a nationwide strike on Thursday, on the occasion of Belaid’s funeral.

Pressure is mounting on Ennahda and the government to quickly arrest Belaid’s killer, no easy task in a country where security has deteriorated since the end of the dictatorship. Ennahda founder and leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who won praise for appointing Marzouki President despite their political differences, must now demonstrate he can restrain his own supporters from taking to the streets in a tit-for-tat show of strength.

It’s time, again, for Tunisia to show the way.

MORE: Tunisia: Two Years After a Martyr’s Death, His Struggle Remains Unfinished