The assassination of a key figure in the Tunisian opposition, Chokri Belaid, marks a very dangerous moment in that country’s democratic revolution, and an ominous warning about the unreconciled forces thrown up by the Arab Spring.
Belaid, one of Tunisia’s best-known human rights defenders and a fierce critic of the ruling “Islamist” party, had been warning about the “climate of systematic violence” , “an official green light” to political violence that was being tolerated by the coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Ennahda and its two, smaller secularist allies. He claimed that its refusal to confront Salafist militants had encouraged the spread of groups hostile to modern culture and liberal ideas. There are strong suspicions that his assassins came from that quarter.
Belaid’s fears are shared by many secularists in Tunisian society, and both the general strike called by trade unions for today and the angry protests on the streets over the last few days are as much about fears for the direction of the revolution as an expression of anger at his death. The arguments have also held up a deal on a constitution setting the stage for a parliamentary election planned for June.
Yesterday divisions in Ennahda led the party to reject proposals by its own prime minister prime minister Hamdi Jebali to dissolve the government his party leads to replace it with a non-party technocratic government pending elections. That move was also rejected by secular and left-wing opposition parties and it is unlikely that Jebali will get a new government approved in the country’s fractious parliament.
More crucially what is at stake is the future of the accommodation between Islamism and pluralism which the Tunisian revolution in particular promised. It is being watched nervously across the region. Ennahda’s apparent willingness – “not an Islamist party .... an Islamic party” – to embrace constitutional secularism on the Turkish model has worryingly been called into question by its apparent ambivalence to extremism and Belaid’s death.