Point blank: Assassination of reason in Tunisia

Violence in the case of Tunisia is more emotional and intellectual – than physical and is “difficult to gauge”.

With the assassination of Shokri Belaid, Tunisia enters into a dark tunnel [AFP]

There is a thin line between revolution and chaos. Today, it manifests itself across the Arab Spring geography. Like in Egypt and Libya, Tunisia is now reaping the seeds of discord sown in the past, marring democratic and civic breakthroughs in the present.

Yesterday, with the assassination of Shokri Belaid, Tunisia enters into a dark tunnel, which will reveal no light until enlightened politics and politicians “rationalise” being, thinking and acting as demanded by the revolutionary moment heralded on January 14, 2011.  

Murder rules

It would be a big lie to state Tunisia has never been violent. Under Bin Ali, violence was systematic and not hidden from the public, a public who at the time either suffered the ignominy of silence, exile, complicity or opposition and its brutal consequences for a whole generation of people, some of whom entered prison young to leave it, after the 2011 revolution, old and de-humanised.

However, assassinations like the one that claimed the life of the vibrant secularist political leader, 48-year-old Belaid, is almost unheard of in Tunisia. There are secret files in Tunisia, and these are yet to be unearthed so that historians re-narrate the years of Bourguiba whose most famous and sole assassination in 1961 in South America was that of his arch rival and sworn political enemy Salah Ben Youssef. As yet there are reliable sources in Arabic on this assassination, supposedly by the near “mythical” figure of Bechir Lazreg La’youn, allegedly Bourguiba’s professional assassin. 

By any stretch of the imagination, Belaid is no Salah ben Youssef: lacked the charisma, standing, following and political programme that makes him anyone’s serious nemesis. He says nothing specifically brilliant or threatening to any political entity that is not said by Ahmed Ibrahim of the Pole Democratique Moderniste (staunchly secularist modernist bloc) or Hamma Hammami, the leftist leader of the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party. 

They share the anti-Islamist rhetoric, vehemently critique the ruling party, Nahda’s poor performance in government. How they vocalise their politics, mobilise and organise, no matter how much one disagrees with it, is first and foremost part and parcel of the task of scrutinising rule, regardless of who is in power and secondly, does not warrant silencing by murder. 

 Top Tunisian opposition leader shot dead

It is easy at times like these for the national mood to plunge into pessimism and “scapegoatism”. Therefore, immediate reactions such as assaults on Nahda’s premises and followers – or for that matter Salafists – is an extension of the same irrationality that motivated unknown assassin or assassins to empty four bullets into Belaid’s head and neck.

Worse still, reacting swiftly into looking for scapegoats and rushing into laying the blame at the door of Islamists may play into the hands of those whose motivation might have been just that: sowing chaos and, who knows, assassinating an entire revolution. If this turns out to be the case, something very difficult to pinpoint with precision or back up with evidence, except from circumstantial violent occurrences such as in Egypt and Libya that defy explanation. Then, what is needed is distance, sobriety and pause. Yes, pause lest consensus is lost for good, and revolution cedes to confusion and more bloodshed. 

Murder should never be allowed to rule over people’s minds and souls – to surrender to the temptation is to murder reason itself. This is one moment when one man’s death should rally people around the goals of a glorious revolution, press on with their realisation methodically, calmly and through institution-building and capacity and confidence-building that produce coalitions of civility, unity of purpose and clarity of democratic intentions.

Beyond Belaid 

Revolutions are messy and violent – in varying degrees. Of the Arab uprisings, Tunisia’s has stood out so far by the small number of human fatalities – mostly during the protests that forced dictator Bin Ali out of power. 

Violence, however, in the case of Tunisia is more emotional and intellectual – than physical. And because it is so, it is kind of “hidden” and difficult to gauge. Revolutions seemed ready for Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but the peoples of these countries, politically, partly seemed not to be ready for revolution. Not for lack of agency, passion, or worthiness. Rather, for the absence of mutuality of acceptance of difference.

Had not been for this absence, “rationalising” revolution via sustainable democratic reconstruction would have been smooth sailing. Belaid is only a metaphor for a set-mind that was doggedly antipathetic to Islamist difference just as Abou Iyadh is a metaphor for a political paradigm that is opposed to secularists and secularism. The difference, of course, is that Belaid fired words, whereas Abou Iyadh’s followers display violence tendencies to harm people through carnage – if given a chance – not verbiage.

It is the stolen generation that forget how to be demotic, argumentative, dialogical and thus missed on the democratic learning curve. Translated into Tunisia of 2013, the deficiency exacted on this generation accounts for the mutuality of exclusion Islamists and secularists, and so-called “revolutionaries” and “anti-revolutionaries” exchange as insults not only to one another, but also, and above all else, to the revolution to which they owe the freedom of ruly and un-ruly behaviour today. 

Yes to the passion of revolution and its flame; but also stress on composure and aplomb is in order so that Belaid is the last not the first victim of odious criminality.

Today, Belaid, tomorrow Ghannouchi? Who knows! If this is a sinister master plan to test the Tunisian capacity for self-control or lack thereof in times of calamity. It consumed Iraq before, Syria today, once Algeria, and Egypt, Libya and Tunisia can be new testing grounds for murdering reason.

Ultimately, so that Belaid does not become a mere number in the list of victims claimed by the insanity of violence and the irrationality of intolerance, Tunisians today must not foment more chaos that results in murder of body or mind. They must parley, mourn together and heal together so that they regain a firm grip on their revolution, a coveted possession that its murder would be collective suicide.  

This is a moment in Tunisia’s revolution when the moral compass must be pointed towards freedom and dignity – not their murder.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and 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).