Lara Marlowe: How seeds of jihad were sown in Tunisia

Politician shot outside his home had opposed training of local youths for Syria and Libya

M’Barka Brahmi, who heard her husband Mohamed being shot as he left their house: ‘I ran out screaming, “Ennahda killed him”.’

M’Barka Brahmi, who heard her husband Mohamed being shot as he left their house: ‘I ran out screaming, “Ennahda killed him”.’

 

The Brahmi family slept late that morning of July 25th, 2013, a holiday in the fasting month of Ramadan.

“We watched television in our bedroom with our youngest daughter and talked about that night’s iftar,” recalls M’Barka Brahmi (47). “As Mohamed went out the door, he asked if I’d heard the noon prayer call and I said No and he said he’d pray at the mosque.”

Mrs Brahmi heard the metal outer gate clang, then a barrage of bullets. “I was sure he’d been shot. I ran out screaming, ‘Ennahda killed him. Ennahda killed him’.”

Eighteen days earlier, Mr Brahmi, a deputy in the Tunisian parliament, had broken with members of his pan-Arabist People’s Party who wanted to negotiate with the Islamist party Ennahda. He accused Ennahda, which ruled Tunisia from 2011 until 2014, of collaborating with Salafist extremists who trained Tunisian youths to fight in Libya and Syria.

“He was slumped behind the steering wheel, with 14 bullets in his body,” Mrs Brahmi recounts, wiping away tears. “Adnan, our eldest, held up his index finger and said, ‘Daddy, daddy, say (the Muslim profession of faith) Shuhada.’ His eyes were open and he looked at us.”

Mrs Brahmi held her dying husband in the back seat of a neighbour’s car on the way to hospital. “His heart was beating, but I knew he would die. I had my hand behind his head. The blood flowed between my fingers like water from a tap.”

Identical assassination

Chokri Belaid

“Their leaders railed against him on television, calling him an atheist, to incite the fundamentalists to kill him.”

Had her husband died in a car crash, Mrs Brahmi says, she would have fallen apart. “I kept my strength because of the way they killed him, because you’re facing an enemy who wants you to give up.” She won her husband’s former seat in parliamentary elections last October.

Mrs Brahmi was not in parliament last Wednesday, when jihadists massacred 20 foreign tourists and a policeman at the adjoining Bardo museum. Every Wednesday, she participates in a hundreds-strong demonstration outside the interior ministry, to demand the truth behind the assassinations.

“Assassins in Tunisia are either shot dead – like at the Bardo – or they get away, like my husband’s killers,” Mrs Brahmi says. “No one is ever arrested and tried.”

The Brahmis were socialists, but also devout Muslims opposing an Islamist party that is allied with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. “My Islam is about the relationship between me and my God,” Mrs Brahmi says. “We made the haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) many times. I believe in an Islam of fraternity, pluralism and democracy.”

The Brahmis were both from Sidi Bouzid, the Tunisian town where the self-immolation of a desperate fruit-seller named Mohamed Bouaziz sparked the Tunisian “jasmine revolution” and subsequent revolts in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

The couple met in the underground Nasserist movement that opposed the dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. M’Barka was still a lycée student. Mohamed was 12 years her senior. It was not a love match. “We were militants and friends together,” she says. When Mohamed told friends he wanted to marry, they suggested M’Barka.

She refers to her late husband as “the martyr Mohamed Brahmi” and speaks of him with great tenderness. “He loved me very much and he respected me very much. I felt the same way about him.”

Mr Brahmi founded the People’s Party when the family returned from Saudi Arabia, where he had worked as an accountant, in 2000. M’Barka had dropped out of law school, bore five children and continued political work with Mohamed. Both were repeatedly arrested.

When Mohamed Bouaziz, the fruit vendor, died after dousing himself with petrol, it was M’Barka’s brother Khaled Awainia, a lawyer in Sidi Bouzid, who organised the first protest march against the regime. Mr Brahmi drove back and forth between Tunis and Sidi Bouzid, a 350km drive, “to make sure the spark of revolution touched other regions”.

It took over three weeks for the protests to reach Tunis. In hospital with a severe infection, M’Barka heard Mohamed on the telephone “telling the comrades, ‘Don’t give up. This is a revolution’. I was terrified because the phones were tapped and I thought he would be arrested and there would be no one to stay with the children”.

Then she laughs, the only time in our two-hour conversation. “He used to say ‘The Ben Ali regime is like a sugar cube in water. If you stir, it will dissolve’.”

Mrs Brahmi never saw her husband happier than on January 14th, 2011, the night Ben Ali fled the country.

“Joy is not a strong enough word for it,” she says. “He and Adnan were beaten by police in the march that day, but it didn’t matter. He was so proud.”

Ennahda, which had been severely repressed by Ben Ali, came to power in elections that year. They would not have won without petro-dollars from Gulf states such as Qatar, Mr Brahmi argued. He objected to Ennahda’s ties with anti-Qadafy rebels in neighbouring Libya. Though he disliked Bashar al-Assad, he saw the Sunni fundamentalist insurrection against Assad as a plot to destroy Syria.

Regional powerplay

Mohamed Morsi

“Egypt, Libya and Syria killed my husband,” Mrs Brahmi says.

Tunisian police say Hatem al-Khashnawi and Yassin al-Abidi, the killers at the Bardo museum, had been trained in Libya. Authorities say they are looking for a third gunman who is still on the run.

Mohamed Brahmi was investigating the logistics network that has sent thousands of Tunisians to fight in Syria and Libya.

“Mohamed said Ennahda was helping jihadis leave, that they were creating a bomb that would explode when they came back,” Mrs Brahmi says. “If he were alive to see what happened last Wednesday, he’d say this is what political Islam brought us.”

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