The assassination of Tunisian leftist politician Chokri Belaid by unknown gunmen has thrown this North African country into turmoil.
Tunisia was the site of the first blooming of the "Arab Spring." When its long-time dictator Zine El Abdine Ben Ali was overthrown by a massive popular uprising in January 2011, it was hailed as an example of a peaceful democratic transition from an entrenched authoritarian regime.
Before it became independent, Tunisia was a semi-independent monarchy until 1881, theoretically loyal to the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. It was then taken over as a French "protectorate." That lasted until full independence in 1956, when Habib Bourguiba became the first president of a new republican government (the monarch, or Bey, of Tunis having been deposed). Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba in 1987 when the latter's health broke down. Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist until 2011.
After Ben Ali's overthrow, political tendencies that had been suppressed, but were still working underground for decades, immediately came to the surface and began competing for influence and power. These included, as in other Muslim majority countries, various parties defining themselves as Islamic, and secular leftist parties influenced by Marxist ideas, among others.
Chokri Belaid, a 49-year-old lawyer and poet, had been active in human rights protests against Ben Ali's government, and emerged as the secretary general of one of several socialist parties, the Democratic Patriots Movement. This party stands for democracy and defense of the interests of the working class and poor farmers.
Belaid's party went into the October 23, 2011, elections to the Constituent Assembly (a body charged with revising the constitution and preparing for general elections in June this year) as part of a "Popular Front" with several other left-wing parties, including the Tunisian Workers' Party (followers of Albanian leader Enver Hoxha), Tunisian Greens and others. The Popular Front parties won three seats in the Constituent Assembly, one of which went to Belaid's Democratic Patriots. However, Islamist parties got many more.
The Ennahda (or al Nahda, meaning "Renaissance") Movement, generally described in the media as a "moderate Islamist party," got 41 percent of the seats and, in coalition with two secularist parties, formed a government under Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of Ennahda. But the roots of the secular left appear to be growing in the labor movement, which has been highly critical of the current government's economic policies.
In the intervening year and a half, emboldened by the electoral showing of the Islamists, the more extreme fundamentalist Salafist elements in Tunisia have become increasingly aggressive toward moderate Muslims and secularists, with threats and violent attacks against individuals and institutions they see as un-Islamic.
On the other hand, the declining economic situation of the Tunisian people led to labor and economic protests, an ominous sign for the government in power because high unemployment among Tunisian youth had been a major factor in Ben Ali's overthrow. Belaid was particularly vocal against the Islamist violence, and criticized the Jebali government for not cracking down hard enough against it, and for continuing some of Ben Ali's neoliberal policies. He had received many threats, including a "fatwa" by a Salafist cleric calling for him to be killed.
Almost immediately after the murder, mass demonstrations, with participation far bigger than the small Democratic Patriots Movement, broke out in Tunis and other areas of the country. On Friday, the main labor union federation, the UGTT (General Federation of Tunisian Workers), whose unions have about a half a million members in this country of about 11 million people, called a general strike. The federation called off the strike at the last minute after the government yielded in talks with union leaders and promised to probe both the murder of Belaid and past arrests and harassment of unionists. Mass protests continued, including a large one at Belaid's funeral.
Every leading figure in Tunisia, from President Moncef Marzouki and Prime Minister Jebali to the leadership of Ennahda, as well as many foreign leaders, denounced Belaid's murder as a vicious act of terrorism, but this did not deter the angry demonstrators, who directed mass protests against Ennahda offices in various parts of the country.
The prime minister quickly announced that he was dissolving his ministry to form a new technocratic, nonpartisan one to prepare for new elections. However, the top leadership of his own party, Ennahda, repudiated this move, complaining that he had not consulted with them. Ennahda is described as a heterogeneous Islamist party, with Prime Minister Jebali representing a more moderate wing but with a Salafist presence also. Meanwhile, the Popular Front parties and others have pulled out of the Constituent Assembly in protest. The Constituent Assembly has been acting as a de-facto parliament in preparation for this year's general elections and was due to be dissolved anyway, a fact which may perhaps give more significance to the Ennahda repudiation of Prime Minister Jebali's announcement.
On Saturday, it was the turn of Ennahda's support base to carry out mass demonstrations, during which some sharply criticized France, the former colonial power which is, after Italy, Tunisia's second largest trading partner. The French ambassador was also called in for criticism by the Tunisian government because the French interior minister had made a statement that a rising tide of "Islamic Fascism" was threatening democracy in Tunisia.
At writing, President Marzouki's own secular party, the Congress for the Republic, has threatened to pull out of the ruling coalition, calling for a new government of national unity (but composed of political leaders, not technocrats.
Photo: Rally in Tunis, Tunisia, Feb 8. Amine Ghrabi, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0