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International flights were canceled and riot police deployed as tens of thousands came out for the burial of slain opposition politician and human rights activist Chokri Belaid in Tunisia today. Observers are closely watching the North African country, praised as the model of the 2011 Arab uprisings, concerned it is at risk of tipping into destabilizing political turmoil and polarization.
Belaid’s family has blamed the government for his Feb. 6 assassination, when he was shot at close range outside his home by an assailant who fled on motorbike. The country’s labor union has also accused the government of playing a role in Belaid’s death, and called for Tunisia’s first general strike in 35 years to coincide with today’s funeral, reports the BBC.
The government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party, has denied the accusations, condemning the murder and calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Although there is no proof of government involvement in Belaid's death, the Associate Press notes that the accusations “sharply raised tensions” in the lead-up to today's funeral.
Critic of Ennahda
The Ennahda party swept October 2011 elections after long-serving former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was pushed out of office during the Arab uprisings. According to The Christian Science Monitor, “Ennahda heads a coalition government with two secularist parties that has had a mixed record of success … [struggling] to appeal both to religious moderates and the working class while also reaching out to more conservative Muslims.”
Belaid was a fierce critic of Ennahda, and he “spoke for many Tunisians who fear religious radicals are bent on snuffing out freedoms won in the first of the revolts that rippled through the Arab world,” according to Reuters. The government has struggled to move forward with the reorganization of the cabinet and a draft constitution, both long overdue.
Compounding Tunisia's political problems is a lagging economy. Elections are to be held in June, but few preparations have been put in motion. Yesterday, Ennahda rejected a plan proposed by the prime minister to create a national unity government, reports The New York Times.
“[M]any Tunisians have grown frustrated by what they call the government’s failure to keep the peace and relieve economic malaise,” reports The Monitor.
Belaid’s death has raised concerns that Tunisia is reaching new levels of unrest and violence.
Revolutions are “messy and violent,” but Tunisia long stood out for the relatively small number of deaths associated with its 2011 uprising, Dr. Larbi Sadiki, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, wrote in Al Jazeera. He added that with the murder of Belaid, “Tunisia enters into a dark tunnel, which will reveal no light until enlightened politics and politicians ‘rationalise’ being, thinking and acting…,” warning that violence in the aftermath of Belaid’s assassination could push Tunisia further off its revolutionary course:
…[R]eacting swiftly into looking for scapegoats and rushing into laying the blame at the door of Islamists may play into the hands of those whose motivation might have been just that: sowing chaos and, who knows, assassinating an entire revolution…. [W]hat is needed is distance, sobriety and pause. Yes, pause lest consensus is lost for good, and revolution cedes to confusion and more bloodshed....
Violence, however, in the case of Tunisia is more emotional and intellectual - than physical. And because it is so, it is kind of "hidden" and difficult to gauge. Revolutions seemed ready for Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but the peoples of these countries, politically, partly seemed not to be ready for revolution. Not for lack of agency, passion, or worthiness. Rather, for the absence of mutuality of acceptance of difference....
Ultimately, so that Belaid does not become a mere number in the list of victims claimed by the insanity of violence and the irrationality of intolerance, Tunisians today must not foment more chaos that results in murder of body or mind. They must parley, mourn together and heal together so that they regain a firm grip on their revolution, a coveted possession that its murder would be collective suicide.
The New York Times notes that “In one of the most disturbing aspects of the situation, Mr. Belaid had himself warned just before his death about Tunisia’s troubling turn toward violence and called for a national dialogue to combat it. He took special aim at Ennahda, accusing the Islamist group of turning a blind eye to crimes perpetrated by hard-line Islamists known as Salafis, including attacking Sufi shrines and liquor stores.”
Karima Bennoune, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, called in an Op-Ed for the San Francisco Chronicle for the US to step in and help support Tunisian secularists.
Tunisian civil society activists are resilient. As Belaid himself said, "They can kill me, but they cannot silence me." His widow found the courage to march in Tunis, flashing the victory sign, the day he died. Since then, outraged demonstrators have braved abuse by Salafi mobs and police, chanting, "The people want a new revolution," and denouncing "Ennahda, torturers of the people."
The US government must stop supporting so-called moderate Islamists like Ennahda, who are anything but and who open the floodgates for their even more extreme brethren. Such an approach has been questioned since the Salafi attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis last fall, but now it must be renounced completely. Liberal opinion in the United States should champion those who wage North Africa's struggle against fundamentalism, whether in Egypt or Tunisia. Their defense of secularism and equality should be our fight, too.