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Tunisia: The Party’s Over: The Assassination of Chokri Belaid

February 12, 2013
Besma Belaid

Besma Belaid, holding a picture of her husband, assassinated in Tunisi, February 6, 2013Tunisia: The Party’s Over…

(Note: This piece appeared as a featured column at Foreign Policy In Focus  with a different title (and  better edited). Tunisia Boils OverThe piece also appeared in The Eurasian Review

1.       Four shots heard round Tunisia.

`They’ have taken to the streets again in protest, in their tens of thousands, – maybe more – this time to protest a political assassination and the general state into which the country has fallen. Once again their anger has overcome their fear. Their sense of decency and dignity, that which has propelled them to the streets before, drives them on.

The euphoria that marked the success of the Tunisian revolt, triggering the region-wide Arab Spring has long dissipated. In its place, sharper and meaner domestic struggles over the direction of the country’s future have surfaced. Two years after a united populace essentially expelled dictator Zine Ben Ali, his power-hungry wife, Leila Trabelsi and their families from the country, Tunisia is today a divided country, divided along religious and class lines.

Tensions came to a head last week.

Two years after a united populace essentially expelled dictator, Zine Ben Ali, his power-hungry wife, Leila Trabelsi and their families from the country, Tunisia is today a divided country, divided along religious and class lines.

On the morning of Wednesday, February 6, 2013, Choki Belaid, a leader of a small coalition of leftist/progressive groups, was assassinated in front of his Tunis home by a professional hit squad of three masked men who put four bullets into his head and chest. While condemning the assassination in rather strong terms, at the same time, probably fearing the possibility of a more independent minded alternative, the U.S. State Department expressed their continued support for the current government.

Within minutes, Belaid’s assassination created a major political crisis for Tunisia’s transition government. The Ennahdha led government is facing nothing short of a crisis in legitimacy; there is the danger of the government unraveling.  Although the assassins have yet to be identified, many  immediately placed the responsibility for the assassination on the lap of the Ennahdha led government ; among those accusing Ennahdha is Besma Belaid, the victim’s wife. Ennahdha is scrambling to deny the charges, and more fundamentally, to stay in power.

The assassination has set in motion the makings of a full blown political crisis, easily the most serious one since Ben Ali’s departure on January 14, 2013. The signs of the crisis have been growing in more ominous in recent months.  In the current confusion, one thing remains clear: Ennahdha, along with its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi have lost a great deal of their credibility, their grip on power is sliding and the opposition to the current transitional government mounting dramatically.

  • There is now an open split in the ruling (in fact if not de jure) Ennahdha Party. In what was a surprise (and politically intelligent) move to many (including this writer), the Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, himself of the Ennahdha Party, dissolved his cabinet and promised to put together another one that would be more reflective of the different national political tendencies, a so-called `technocrat’ cabinet. Jebali saw this as a last ditch effort to save the Ennahdha led government by appeasing at least a portion of the opposition. Jebali was immediately countered by Rachid Ghannouchi, spiritual head of Ennahdha. Ghannouchi called the leadership of Ennahdha to a meeting which `repealed’ Jebali’s decision. Several days later, Jebali has stuck to his guns, threatening to resign if he cannot put together a new cabinet.
  • A number of members of opposition parties have pulled out of the country’s constituent assembly, making the functioning of that body to come up with a new constitution, difficult if not impossible
  • Two of the country’s three ruling parties, the Congress of the Republic, the party of President Marzouki and Ettakatol (The Democratic Party for Labor and Liberties) have threatened to pull their members from the cabinet and have given the government a week to make long promised significant but unfulfilled promises.
Tunis, February 8 - protesting the murder of Chokri Belaid

Tunis, February 8 – protesting the murder of Chokri Belaid

2.       Calls for the Government to Step down

On February 8 in Tunis, with one day’s notice, at least 50,000 people, defiant and angry, marched in protest of the killing. Slogans and chants were not limited to simply bringing the killers to justice but called for the government to step down.  Some reports suggest the number was much higher. Whatever the number, it was nothing short of a warning shot across Ennadhda’s bow.  In some places, including Tunis. Siliana and  Sidi Bouzid, Ennahdha offices were trashed.

On the same day,the day of Belaid’s funeral,  the Tunisian trade union federation, the Union Generale de Travailleurs Tunisiens (General Union of Tunisian Workers), or UGTT, called a one day strike that was broadly respected throughout the country.  Initial reports suggest that it was largely successful. The ruling coalition has been increasingly hostile to the country’s labor movement, first isolating them from a political role in the running of the state and then increasingly turning on them, using the army to put down strikes, with Salafist thugs attacking the union headquarters on a number of occasions.

For many, the current Tunisian protest movement brings back memories of the anger and demonstrations that brought down the Ben Ali regime a mere two years ago. Nor do people forget that popular sentiment also forced the hand of two transitional governments in the early post-Ben Ali period.

Nor are these recent history lessons lost on those in power; they are now scrambling to counter the accusation that they are in some way responsible for Belaid’s death. Understanding its plunging legitimacy before its own people, the next day, Saturday, February 9, Ennahdha tried to mount its own mass demonstration. It turned out to be more of a show of weakness and isolation. Press reports speak of a paltry 3000 supporters, including a fair number of Salafists with Sha’ria banners, who came out in support of the government.

Chokri Belaid, murdered  Tunisian popular movement leader

Chokri Belaid, murdered Tunisian popular movement leader

3.       Choki Belaid and Farhat Hached

Up until his death, Belaid, a leader of what is called the `Popular Front’, a coalition of more left leaning and secular parties,  had directed his criticisms against the Ennahdha Party for its laxity in reigning in Salafist (Islamic fundamentalist) brown shirt violence, for its ineptitude in guiding the country economically and politically in the post Ben Ali era and for its acquiescence to IMF and World Bank demands to open up the Tunisian economy that much more.

Although there have been other assassinations of political figures in modern Tunisian history, other than the 1952 murder of Tunisian labor and nationalist leader Farhat Hached, none have triggered the kind of mass reaction as Belaid’s. Hached was killed in 1952 by a French hit squad called La Main Rouge (The Red Hand), apparently working directly out of the office of the French governor general,  Jean Hautecloque.

To compare Belaid’s assassination to Hached’s is also to imply that the state at its highest level, is, once again, involved in the assassination of an important Tunisian political figure, an allegation that the Ennahdha Party vociferously, if ineffectively, denies.

Up until his death, Belaid, a leader of what is called the `Popular Front’, a coalition of more left leaning and secular parties,  had directed his criticisms against the Ennahdha Party for its laxity in reigning in Salafist (Islamic fundamentalist) brown shirt violence, for its ineptitude in guiding the country economically and politically in the post Ben Ali era and for its acquiescence to IMF and World Bank demands to open up the Tunisian economy that much more

Chokri Belaid was, at the very least, a talented and principled Tunisian progressive with deep roots in the country’s labor movement and among the country’s democratic element that extends far beyond the secular left. The political movement that he helped lead, the Popular Front, although starting to gain traction in the polls, is still modest, but the popular reaction – revulsion would be a more accurate term – to his death indicates the degree to which his thinking and vision for post-Ben Ali Tunisia resonates far beyond the Front’s supporters to include broad sectors of the population both in the urban coastal and more rural interior regions.

Chokri Belaid’s assassination is the culmination of an all round socio-economic and cultural crisis that has been brewing for the past two years. It underlines and exposes the severe weakness and ultimately, profound factionalism of the Ennahdha Party, its continued failure to address the country’s deepening socio-economic crisis, its cynical use of religion to divide a country which is 99% Sunni Moslem along modernist-medievalist lines, its indulgence if not outright cooperation and collusion with Salafist and Wahhabist extremists who have been rampaging the country unchallenged by the state for some time now.

During the Ben Ali years (1987-2010), Tunisia was considered a poster child of IMF-World Bank structural adjustment policies, policies which blew up in Ben Ali’s face and were at the heart of why he was forced to flee the country. High unemployment rates, structural imbalances between the relative prosperity of the coastal urban areas and the utter poverty of the interior, low wages and a deteriorating social net, combined with seething repression created the political Molotov cocktail that unseated the dictator. While it is of course too much to ask any new government to address such structural deficiencies overnight, in the past two years virtually nothing has changed on the socio-economic front.

Perhaps more importantly, Ennahdha has lacked an economic and political vision that could help begin to get the country out of its economic rut and around which a national consensus could be built. Instead it is more of the same. If anything the Tunisian economy is even more open to global capital today than it was during the Ben Ali days.

Where is it all headed? No one can say at this point. For Ennahdha, the party is over. As has happened frequently in the past, killing the man, Chokri Belaid, has made the ideals for which he died that much more precious to the Tunisian people. Like Farhat Hached, his legacy lives on.


Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2013. Tunisia’s Revolution Annexed

NY Times, February 14, 2013. Tunisia Sinks Back Into Turmoil.

Tunisia Live, February 21, 2013. Political Turmoil Endangers Tunisian Economy.

Truthout, April 3, 3013. Interview with Widow of Tunisian Slain Popular Leader

Trade Arabia, February 21, 2013. Political Instability Erodes Tunisia’s Economic Gains

2 Comments leave one →
  1. kerim permalink
    February 13, 2013 6:16 am

    The big question is, who is behind the assassination plot of Belaid ? And why he ?
    Could it be an inside job ? Only lieutenant Columbo might solve it .
    Even though, we can take for granted that it was a premeditated plot, casa-nostra like type of action, in broad daylight and in gruesome cold blood .
    We might also think that whoever picked out Chokri Belaid, is someone with “power” and money, someone with connections who can easily hire in some thick-head-thugs who would do anything for a buck .
    Definitely there is a lot of manipulation going on around , but the aim was to sow confusion that will surely redirect the blame to the transitional government, and to Ennahda in particular, for being indeed too idle towards salafist groups and their systematic campaigns of violence against anyone with liberal aspirations . Late Belaid made use of his abilities as a firm debater, and had the media & multimedia on his side, so everything he’d say is often front page news . We have to notice that Belaid is not the only one walking around with liberal aspirations, and who by chance, happens not to be in favor of Ennahda being in charge in both the Interior Ministry post & the Justice Dep post, without actually doing enough to ground the salafists madness to a halt . It is a reasonable blame since both ministries represent the highest authority when it comes to law and order .
    In short, the picking of Belaid is maybe done because he was an easy target anyway, with no guards around him whatsoever, except a driver, even after the threats he’d received.
    Wondering If someone really wanted him dead, is it for what purpose ? Belaid was only one of many voices calling from the sideline for change .
    But this assassination was meant to shock, and to set in motion public anger, hoping to iginite riots that will lead to the fall of the government and consequently of Ennahda .


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