A Murder in Tunis

A Murder in Tunis

TUNIS — On the night of Feb. 5, prominent leftist politician Shoukri Belaid went on a popular Tunisian television station to denounce the political violence that had targeted him, his party, and other opposition groups. He gave at least one specific example where Islamists, allegedly associated with both the ultraconservative Salafi movement and the governing al-Nahda Party, recently attacked a meeting of his United Democratic Nationalist party in the interior town of El Kef. He said that security forces watched the attack take place but did nothing.

The following morning, Belaid was shot in the head and the chest as he was leaving his home. In the hours that followed, Tunisians took to the streets around the country to protest the escalating political violence and the slow pace of reform. Protesters gathered in front of the cordoned-off Interior Ministry in the capital, demanding a new revolution. There were widespread reports of clashes between police and protesters — including in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Sidi Bouzid, where protests first began in Tunisia. Al-Nahda Party headquarters in towns in the interior of the country were attacked, despite the fact that leaders from the party strongly condemned the assassination.

The political repercussions of the assassination were immediate. In a national televised address, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced that the current government will be dissolved and replaced by a temporary cabinet made up of technocrats. He offered few other details, and it is unclear whether his promise will placate critics.

Belaid was a leader in the leftist community — especially, as a member of the biggest student union, among the youth. A lawyer by training, Belaid defended key opposition figures during the regime of deposed autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In one high-profile case, he defended a group of students who went on hunger strike in 2009 after they were arrested for their criticism of the education system. More recently, he was an important figure in the establishment of a coalition of leftist groups opposed to the government.

So far, it remains unclear who was behind Belaid’s killing. What is perfectly clear, however, is that political violence in Tunisia is getting worse: The country that was once the poster child for the Arab Spring has been the scene of increasing street clashes as citizens express their frustration with the unfulfilled promises of the revolution. In this chaotic environment, it’s not unusual to hear Tunisians retreat to conspiracy theories to explain the lack of order, and accusations against Islamists or ex-regime figures — depending on the source’s political views — are common.

Belaid’s murder was far from the first headline-grabbing act of violence in Tunisia. On Sept. 14, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis was attacked shortly after the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Since then, Tunisian politicians of all stripes have been subjected to attacks. Abdelfattah Mourou, a vice president of al-Nahda who is generally considered a moderate Islamist, was assaulted by ultraconservative Muslims on at least two occasions. Members of the country’s biggest trade union, the UGTT, have been attacked by al-Nahda supporters belonging to a group called the "Committee to Protect the Revolution." There have also been numerous attacks on artists and journalists, allegedly by violent Islamists. At the same time, dozens of historic shrines across the country have been torched, with some alleging that the attacks were carried out by Salafis (although one Salafi leader, Abou Ayadh Al-Tounsi, recently denied Salafi involvement in either the Sufi shrine burnings or the U.S. Embassy attack).

These incidents, capped by the killing of Belaid, all call into question the Tunisian government’s ability to maintain security. A large part of the problem is that Tunisia’s security forces, which once served as an integral part of Ben Ali’s police state, have not been reformed. At a recent conference on police reform organized by civil society groups, many complained that the state’s security responsibilities have been deferred to "Committees to Protect the Revolution," and other pseudo-militia groups — an allegation similar to that made by Belaid in his final TV appearance.

Meanwhile, it is unclear how much control the government actually has over the security forces. Interior Minister Ali Laareyedh, an al-Nahda member who himself was imprisoned and tortured in the building where he now works, has seemingly not been able or willing to clean house. It’s one of the main grievances against the new government: It is no accident that Tunisians chose to vent their rage at Belaid’s death by protesting in front of the Interior Ministry as well as police stations around the country.

The angry protests also highlight a broader discontent among Tunisians. Unemployment is still higher than it was prior to the revolution, hovering around 20 percent. The families of those who were killed during the protests that led to Ben Ali’s overthrow still demand justice for those responsible. The Constituent Assembly, elected in October 2011 and tasked with writing a new constitution, regularly holds sessions with less than half of its relatively well-paid members in attendance. Given the widespread frustration, Belaid’s death may well be a tipping point for Tunisia. 

In the aftermath of Belaid’s death, whoever emerges in the driver’s seat in Tunis will find themselves under more pressure to meet Tunisians’ demands. Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda’s leader, felt obliged to deny his party’s involvement in the killing, telling Reuters, "Is it possible that the ruling party could carry out this assassination when it would disrupt investment and tourism?"

While many will expect the powers that be in Tunis to investigate this crime and punish those responsible for Belaid’s death, the anger on the street is clearly about much more than just one political assassination. The credibility of the revolution itself is on the line.