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Tunisia: Tamarrod by assassination?

Does the latest political assassination in Tunisia aim to trigger an Egypt-like rebellion?

Last Modified: 27 Jul 2013 17:55
Larbi Sadiki

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University.
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Opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi was shot dead on July 25, and follows the assassination of the late Chokri Belaid, who was shot on February 6 as he was leaving his house [AFP]

After my curiosity turned me into a protester two nights ago, my eyes are still itching from the teargas.  The news of the assassination of secular politician Mohamed Brahmi shocked everyone. The Tunisian friends I was with when we heard the news were speechless.

More bad news today, as the body of the slain Nassirist politician was being laid to rest in Al-Jallaz cemetery, the country's most famous resting place for nationalist and anti-colonial heroes. The day was opened up with news of a blast in Tunis, which luckily caused no deaths but added to public anxiety and thirst for answers as to what is going on in Tunisia - the only Arab spring country on the verge of a genuine democratic transition. Is al-Qaeda sending a not-so-veiled message? Is it Ben Ali's azlam  - as Tunisians refer to the folool  (remnants of the old regime)? What is certain is that the government doesn't know either.

At the time of speaking, more than 40 National Constituent Assembly (NCA) deputies have declared their resignation from the 217-seat interim parliament. Similarly, proponents of a visibly weak "tamarrod " campaign are staging protests in varying degrees of intensity around the country. In Tunis there is a protest in front of the NCA building. I will be inhaling more teargas, so it seems - the mischief of curiosity that always seems to get the best of the "cat".

Having more or less failed to explain the latest killing, the Interior Ministry is not in an enviable position, nor for its Islamist-led government, its Congress for the Republic (CPR), or Ettakatol partners.

Targeting leftists?

Popular front (Jabhah sha'biyyah) opposition figure and NCA deputy, Mohamed Brahmi, was shot dead outside his home in Ariana, southeast of the capital, Tunis.

His execution comes nearly five months after the assassination back in February of another Jabhah politician, Chokri Belaid. Brahmi was one of the figures that opposed Ben Ali ferociously, and apart from his Pan-Arabist Nassirist politics, he was not particularly important in a way that could explain why he was the target of the latest killing. In terms of stature, the late Belaid enjoyed more prominence.

Protests after Tunisia politician shot dead

This latest political murder was executed in a manner almost identical to that of Belaid. Brahmi, whose daughter might have seen the killers, died by shots fired at him in front of his house. Belaid was fired at three times; Brahmi's body was riddled with 14 bullets, as if his murder was personal and one caused by hatred or vengeance.

Brahmi, who hailed from Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi's town, split from the People's Movement (MP) to form his own party, and joined the broad leftist coalition, the Popular Front (FP).

Whether the 58-year-old Brahmi's defection from the MP to join the Popular Front played a role in his killing is unknown. The facts presented by the Interior Minister and his aides, as inchoate and unconvincing as they might have been, implicate radical Salafists. Was the blast in Tunis hours later in response to the Interior Minister's press conference laying the blame on an extremist who is at large? Time will tell.

In this second assassination, the devil is not in the missing details but rather in the timing.

It comes at a time when the identity of Belaid's killer or killers had not, until yesterday, been disclosed and no one has been brought to justice five months later. And why has the Interior Minister revealed a name, who may not be the killer anyhow, under the pressure of a second assassination? Was it good police work? Nahda, who is slightly slipping in popularity, should have acted earlier, especially as growing numbers of people accuse it of being lenient on extremists, including the rising forces of al-Qaeda-like Salafism. This is despite the fact that the Prime Minister's office claims to have identified half-a-dozen names allegedly associated with Belaid's killing.

Similarly, Brahmi was killed on a symbolic day when Tunisia is celebrating the 56th anniversary of the republic. It is a public holiday and people normally gather in public places. Was the killing timed to take advantage of this event and convert public celebration into crowds of commiseration and rage against the ruling Nahda? Luckily for Tunisia, since the revolution, celebration of republic day has been mellowed by angst over jobs and worsening economic situations, including in the South and the centre where protests from yesterday resulted in one fatality. It will not be the last as Tunis becomes the focus of opposition protest.

'Tamarrod'?

A rebellion campaign will not succeed in Tunisia. The army is professional and neutral and will not intervene.

In February 2013 mass demonstrations were staged during and after the funeral of slain politician Chokri Belaid. The call for a rebellion campaign is already in the public domain, mostly by forces and voices opposing the Islamist-led government. Some even have called for the dissolution of the NCA, which is tasked with constitution-framing. This would be a major setback for the future of democratisation in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

The bizarre thing in Tunisia is that people calling for tamarrod  (rebellion a la Egypt) are under fire - and the President of the country, former human rights activist Moncef Merzouki, has spoken against such a campaign. The mere call for a campaign of protest should not in an incipient democracy be criminalised. Such a campaign would not succeed in Tunisia - despite scenarios of doom and gloom, the democratisation process remains promising, even if slow, and should deliver the goods depending on how major parties and leaders behave over the next a few days.

Inside Story - Egypt: Crisis, coup or revolution?

If this second assassination is aimed at triggering a "rebellion" against the ruling Nahda Party, the argument that the government has failed to act decisively against the assassins implicated in the first assassination may not help Ali La'rayedh's government. La'rayedh, the interim PM since Hamamdi Jebali's resignation, was Interior Minister at the time of the first assassination. This second assassination under his premiership comes to refute his attempts to allay the public's fear about the rise of Salafi terrorism in Tunisia. This is one point that the disjointed and incoherent opposition in the North African country has seized upon to sow doubts about Nahda.

Hundreds from the supporters of the Ansar al-Shari'ah group have been arrested. And despite earlier toleration of Salafis, Nahda is now far more outspoken in its rejection of violence by Salafis.

Early in June, two soldiers were killed and two others wounded when a mine planted by Salafists detonated in Doghra, in Mount Chaambi. The fight against terrorists comes at a time when the country witnesses sharp polarisation; although the June 30 calls to emulate Egypt and lead a rebellion campaign against Nahda has support, it is limited.

There have been calls by extremists to target key opposition leaders. This has been coupled by calls for rallies by Salafis in places like Kairouan and the Ettadamon suburb in Tunis. Acts of desecration of ancient shrines, considered heretical, along with attacks on premises licensed to sell alcohol are known to have taken place since 2011. The same goes for TV stations. Generally, Salafis in Tunisia want a Sharia-ruled Tunisia and for some this threatens the state, which is a common exaggeration.

Hundreds have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an unknown number - perhaps close to 2,000 - may be fighting in Syria. This adds security complications to Tunisia, both state and society.

Where to?

Tunisia has benefited from the prolonged period of transition - outside the originally agreed timetable - even though there seems now to be massive calls for hastening voting on the constitution so that draft laws are passed to close the first phase of transition. Already NCA members are yet to wrap up deliberations of the draft constitution. They have more or less finished discussing the 180 questions on the draft constitution.

Dissolution of either NCA or government would plunge Tunisia into the unknown. However, sustaining the status quo is also a recipe for disaster.

This is a time for Nahda to show leadership - not to wait - even if the situation is nothing like Egypt or what Morsi faced. Initiative is the name of the game. Nahda's statement against all violence - only that which is sanctioned by law and under the aegis of the state - should be be through immediate dismantling of the committees for the protection of the revolution. They are hurting its popularity outside its fixed constituency, especially youth. Others should do the same.

Tunisia opposition figures 'shot by same gun'

Mustafa Ben Jaafar, the NCA Speaker, should wrap up the work of the constitution firstly through the consensus committees so that all contested issues are ironed out. Following this, the remaining work to complete the drafting of the constitution would - as is widely and wisely called for in Tunisia - be referred to an NCA-elected panel of experts. It is a mechanism that has been used in many a democracy. Alternatively, the NCA is given a two-month deadline to deliver a complete draft ready for a public referendum.

There have been all kinds of dramas in "elasticising" the NCA's work - noted for high absenteeism - and the Elections Commission should not have taken seven months to vote nine commissioners.

NCA-mediated solutions are preferable to alternative scenarios - a power vacuum and rebellion for the sake of rebellion, and those scrutinising the bloodbath in Egypt - should realise that the ballot is way more eloquent than the bullet. Brahmi's tragic end is regrettable at a time like this as the Arab Spring geography witnesses paralysis and bloodshed - but the bullet that killed him should not shoot down Tunisia's democratisation, lest lunacy have the last laugh. 

Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University. He is the author of  Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy  (Oxford University Press, 2009) and  The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses  (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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