Last week saw the most significant and the most dangerous turn in Tunisia since its revolt in 2011. The assassination of the progressive political figure, lawyer and human rights activist Chokri Belaid on 6 February 2013 in broad day light and outside his home in Tunis provoked anger and a deep sense of betrayal among millions of Tunisians.
Only the night before his cowardly murder, Belaid appeared on live TV warning of the ‘systematic political violence’ in the country targeting prominent political figures especially secularists like him, unionists, civil society activists, intellectuals, artists and journalists. He was invited to the programme because only a few days earlier, a regional meeting of his party ‘The Unified Democratic Nationalist Party’ was attacked. His house was ransacked during the holy month of Ramadan last summer and his wife and close colleagues confirmed that he received death threats. Even on the day of his funeral, other well-known figures were receiving death threats. I should mention here that on the day of Belaid’s funeral, a policeman was killed during clashes between police and gangs of young men who tried to disrupt the funeral proceedings.
This is not the first incident of a political murder. In October last year, Lotfi Nagdh, the co-ordinator of ‘The Call of Tunisia’(Nidaa Tounes), a newly-formed opposition party comprising former diplomats, liberals and intellectuals, was killed and his body pulled in the streets of Tataouin in the South of the country. His successor also died in suspicious circumstances. The government said he died of a ‘heart attack’. On 31 January 2012, another less known opposition figure also died in mysterious circumstances, the government said ‘he suffered from a heart condition’.
The assassination of Belaid though, is the most serious. Belaid was an ardent critic of the governing Islamist party Ennahda and its policies. He knew his life was under threat , but that never deterred him from speaking out against oppression and attempts by the government to silence its critics. His murder is a dangerous turn because it takes the country into the unknown. Many are warning of a repeat of the Lebanese scenario in the seventies that started with targeted political assassinations and led to the bloody civil war between 1975 -1990. That war claimed the lives of at least 150,000 people. After Belaid, many in Tunisia are now wondering who’s going to be next?
IS THE GOVERNMENT OF ENNAHDA TO BE TRUSTED?
No one has claimed responsibility for the murder of Chokri Belaid, but I remember very well that a number of ministers in the Islamist government warned him live on TV ‘ to watch what he says’. In fact even on the day of his assassination, one of those ministers -in a live debate- named the second most prominent leader in Belaid’s party and said he should learn from what happened!
The Ennahda party that leads the current coalition government denied any responsibility. Many say that may be case , but it certainly didn’t protect him. As a party in power it has the duty and the responsibility to protect all citizens.
One group that’s suspected of the murder of Chokri Belaid is the shadowy so-called neighbourhood protection group known as ‘Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution’, a militia claiming that its mission is to ‘cleanse the country of remnants of the old regime’ but is believed to be using thugs to stir clashes and violently disrupt trade union gatherings. It’s this group that is implicated in the killing of Lotfi Nagdh. It’s widely believed that it’s affiliated with the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda and is protected by it.
The party denies any link or control of these groups. If so, many wonder why did the government call for the release of the killers of Lotfi Nagdh from prison and how come the interim President received members of the group after the killing? What message was he sending to them? It’s also argued that Ennahda’s spiritual leader Rachid Ghannouchi constantly talks of the potential of a civil war and what he refers to as a ‘social stampede.’ The Islamist –dominated government has also been accused of polarizing political life around religion in Tunisia and therefore threatening to divide the population.
IS SALAFISM ON THE RISE IN TUNISIA?
The other group possibly responsible for the assassination is a violent branch of the Ultra religious Salafist movement - on the rise since Tunisia’s revolt against the dictatorship in 2011. The most dangerous being The Salafist Jihadists who, though small in number, have launched the most violent attacks: about forty historic shrines and mausoleums across the country have been set on fire, art events-such as the violence at last summer’s Tunis Arts Spring show have been attacked , artists and journalists targeted or beaten for expressing liberal views, alcohol-selling premises vandalized and local American institutions assaulted.
In the incident at Ain Amenas in the south of Algeria last month, Algerian officials said 11 out of the 32 Islamic gunmen who overran the gas field were Tunisian. Many of Jihadist fighters in Syria are also believed to be Tunisian nationals. Ennhada-led government is accused of either being too soft in dealing with the serious threat the Salafist Jihadists represent inside and outside of Tunisia or has been taking an ambiguous stance towards street violence, hate speech and constant violent attacks.
Tunisians today are really concerned about what they call ‘the Somalization’ of their country i.e, a failed state with the ensuing lawlessness and the spread of armed militias as was the case in Somalia. They are wondering how their country once considered a model for stability, prosperity and modernity in an often turbulent region, has got to this point?
HAS THE REVOLUTION BEEN HIJACKED?
Most feel their country’s transition to democracy since their revolt against the dictatorship of Zin El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 has been shaken by a sour economy, political turmoil and religious violence. Their basic demands for the creation of jobs, guaranteeing their freedoms and dignity have not been fulfilled. If anything, they speak bitterly of their ‘revolution being hijacked by a government that claims to be protecting it but constantly using it in its battles with the opposition.’ Over a year has passed and the new constitution has not been completed. New elections were due last October but did not happen due to lack of consensus and Tunisians are still waiting for the government to announce a date. The gap between the ruling class and the twelve-million Tunisians is widening. As if all that is not enough, Tunisians are now facing another grave challenge: a growing fear for their safety and security.
I have been glued to the TV since 6 February (the day that will go down history as the most bleak in Tunisia’s post revolution history), one comment by a young Tunisian man made me think. He said he lives in Libya but he visits his family in Tunis often. He said ‘weapons are everywhere in Libya, but strangely enough he felt safer there than he did in his own country!’
A STAUNCH DEFENDER OF THE POOR IS NO MORE
With the shocking assassination of Chokri Belaid, Tunisia today faces its most serious political crisis since its independence in 1956. The government can still get its act together and pull the country away from the brink by forming a government of national unity and calling for early elections soon after that. The Tunisian Revolution is often dubbed ‘the most successful’ in the countries that have witnessed ‘the Arab Spring’. If it’s to be so, the West has a moral duty to put pressure on the current Tunisian government to listen to its people and their demands.
Chokri Belaid’s blood that was unnecessarily and criminally shed last week, has proved to be a unifying force for the majority of the population. Nearly 1.5 million people took part in his funeral, mostly average citizens with no political affiliation. Symbolic funerals also took part in various parts of the country in which millions participated. The General Workers Union(UGTT), the strongest and oldest trade union in the Arab World also called for a general strike in a protest against the murder. It was successfully observed.
Belaid was compared to national figures who fought against French colonialism such as Farhat Hachad and Ahmed Ben Saleh. Some even compared him to The Pan-Arab Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara because he was a stauntch defender of the poor and the oppressed. At his funeral, many spoke in tears about how Belaid, the lawyer, defended them for free because they couldn’t afford it. In fact, it was Belaid who also defended the Islamists under Ben Ali’s rule.
At the cemetery, family members and associates wept as Belaid was lowered into the earth and his colleague Hamma Hammami of the National Front and the Tunisian Workers' Union gave the eulogy. ‘Sleep well, Chokri, we will continue the fight,’ he said, even as the acrid stench of the tear gas fired outside hung in the air.
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* Mounira Chaieb, is a former BBC Journalist and writes on Tunisian and Arab affairs