Amid the shock and grief at a terrible murder, there is an angry accusation. When forthright opposition leader Chokri Belaid was gunned down in broad daylight outside his home in Tunis, furious protesters marched on the offices around the country of the ruling Ennahda party. Belaid’s brother, Abdel Majid, accused the Islamist party – which dominates the three-way coalition government – of the murder. Ennahda has denounced the assassination. Chillingly, Belaid, a secularist and vocal critic of Ennahda, warned of the rise of political violence when he appeared on Tunisian TV the night before he was killed.
Jalila Hedhli-Peugnet, president of the NGO Think Ahead for Tunisia, reflected the prevailing sentiment on Wednesday when she told France 24 that Belaid “was not assassinated under the dictatorship of Ben Ali, now he is assassinated under the democracy of Ennahda”. If the government didn’t kill him, she said, it also didn’t protect him from such a tragedy.
Tension has been building, then, within a revolution that is too often billed a success story. Tunisia has not suffered the level of turmoil and violence of Egypt, or the agonising death and displacement of Syria, and so it appears to be handling the transition from dictatorship to democracy well. Other post-uprising countries look to Tunisia as both inspiration and weathervane. But Tunisians themselves bemoan their role as revolutionary poster-child as it can lead to the outside world ignoring or dismissing the very real problems there.
One such problem is the escalating political violence in Tunisia in the past year. A report just released by Human Rights Watch cites attacks on activists, journalists, intellectual and political figures – all the incidents apparently “motivated by a religious agenda”.
Others have worried that the perpetrators of attacks on secular figures are not pursued rigorously by the coalition, thereby encouraging more of them. There’s concern that Ennahda has failed to act on verbal and physical attacks (for instance against a TV station, intellectuals and an art gallery last year) by the ultra-religious Salafi movement. And opposition groups, the General Labour Union and campaigners, including the Centre for Press Freedom, have voiced mounting concern at the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution – neighbourhood protection groups claiming to fight corruption and old regime remnants. The opposition views them as Ennahda enforcers (though the party has dismissed claims of any affiliation with the leagues), and some Tunisians suspect them of being behind the murder of Belaid. Belaid is reported to have described the leagues as “Ennahda-backed goon squads that attacked opposition rallies”.
When Lofti Naqdh, a co-ordinator with Nida Tounes, a new opposition party, died after violent political clashes with one of these leagues in Tataouine last October, the ministry of interior said he had suffered a heart attack. But Al-Jazeera reports that a new autopsy, requested by Naqdh’s family, last week confirmed that he was the victim of fatal beatings, with the head of one of these league local branches implicated in the killing.
Last month Amnesty warned that Tunisia’s latest draft constitution, albeit an improvement on previous versions, is still ambiguous on issues such as gender equality, freedom of expression and judicial independence.
It’s possible that any post-revolutionary party, once in power, would face the same accusations over missed deadlines for political progress, lack of justice, and a surge in youth unemployment. But in Tunisia this is compounded by the fact that, while most accept the democratic process that created an Islamist-heavy government, there’s a worry that Islamists don’t really do the sort of power-sharing required in post-revolutionary periods.
Amid calls for a general strike tomorrow and French schools in Tunisia closing because of continuing unrest, Ennahda’s prime minister, Hamdi Jebali, pledged to form an interim cabinet of technocrats to prevent an impending political crisis. The idea was to finally agree a constitution and hold elections in June. Then Ennahda’s leadership announced that Jebali had spoken out of turn and rejected his plan.
But this is not a time for power politics; it is a time for consensus. If Ennahda doesn’t get it right now, it won’t just risk losing the forthcoming election – it could lose Tunisia’s revolution too.
Rachel Shabi is the author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.