Political violence and the efforts to salvage Tunisia’s revolution

Understanding the historical context of recent political violence is key for Tunisia’s long-term political stability.

Tunisia soldiers
Tunisian soldiers stand guard on the fringes of an anti-government demonstration on the Habib Bourguiba Avenue on July 26, 2013 in Tunis after the killing of the opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi [AFP]

The political assassination of nationalist politician Mohamed Brahmi last week is a personal tragedy for his family, who witnessed his brutal murder, as well as a national tragedy for a nation at least temporarily derailed from a process that seemed poised to produce a relatively stable democratic transition, thereby avoiding the violence, polarisation and paralysis of other post-Arab uprising states.

Just as after the murder earlier in the year of secular leftist politician, Chokri Belaid, many are again attempting to make sense of what such political assassinations mean for Tunisia. Belaid and Brahmi’s murder, together with the latest episode of violence in the Jabal Chaambi mountains near the Algerian border, have produced an abundance of speculation over a range of potential domestic, regional and international suspects.

To avoid reductionist accounts and over-simplifications about the year’s political violence, one must step back from immediate emotional and political reactions. Viewing these events through the analytical lens of political violence can help us to do so. As SOAS Professor Charles Tripp has argued, at its heart, political violence is a ‘projection of power’ that aims to serve as both ‘a symbol and an instrument of the seriousness of the political project.’

Too often, in discussions where Islamist terrorism is invoked, analysts rely on comfortable stereotypes and facile assumptions, which can be characterised by what the Columbia Professor Mahmoud Mamdani refers to as the ‘de-politicisation of violence’, an analytical vacuum in which history and politics are denied. In these approaches, focus is overwhelmingly placed on the violence employed by certain movements, as opposed to the context in which it emerges and the motivations or desired ends of those involved.

In order to avoid the circular reasoning and polemics that such analysis can produce, one must view the murders of both Belaid and Brahmi and other recent political violence in Tunisia as part of a ‘political project’ – perhaps several. By viewing these attacks through the Islamist terror narrative, an opportunity to discover other, perhaps more uncomfortable truths about these events is squandered. Though the aims of the project(s) remain as of yet unknown, the immediate impact is clear: social turmoil and increased polarisation.

Tunisia’s long history of political violence

Though political assassinations have been rare in Tunisia – perhaps the most renowned being the assassination of President Habib Bourguiba’s Arab nationalist rival, Salah Ben Youssef, in 1961, and that of the Palestinian leader known as Abu Jihad in 1988, under Ben Ali’s rule – political violence certainly is not. Systematic and brutal, political violence was intrinsic to Tunisia’s post-colonial state-building project. Ben Ali’s neo-liberal authoritarianism in particular used state-sponsored violence to devastate all forms of resistance (from independent trade unionism to Islamism) to the widening inequalities and political repression that accompanied his repositioning of state power.

From the late 1980s onwards, Islamists (most prominently members of the current governing Nahda party) and those suspected to be Islamists, were subject to the most sustained repression, detention, and torture practices yet seen in independent Tunisia. Some 35,000 men and 1,500 women were detained and tortured under Ben Ali in the name of ‘national security’, the paradigm that secured his firm hold over state institutions and identity often with the complicity of western powers and international institutions.

Remembering root causes of revolution

For many observers and activists, the recent manifestations of political violence in Tunisia seem to demand a thoroughgoing appraisal of Tunisia’s nascent revolution. Important questions have been raised concerning the failure of the transitional government to adequately address the conditions that led to the revolution: exorbitantly high unemployment especially amongst educated youth, regional and economic disparity, the corruption, indeterminate nature and violence of the ‘deep state’, the criminalisation of certain forms of activism and expression, as well as the unresolved plight of former political prisoners.

Yet the criticism of vocal leaders of the secular and liberal opposition has a different focus. Rather than protesting the government’s failure to adequately address these conditions or achieve real structural change on both the socio-economic and institutional levels, many are now demanding the dissolution of the Nahda-led government for their facilitation and masking of terrorism. Chants at recent protests included: “Islamists are vampires,” and “We want to overthrow the government of terrorists.”

After Belaid’s murder, the international reaction turned on a realisation that Tunisia could no longer serve as a showcase transition to liberal democracy – a narrative that had been constructed in the light of Tunisia’s largely peaceful revolution. Implicit in this international narrative was a focus not on revolution and the crafting of revolutionary institutions, but on security and rule of law. This emphasis on national security has exacerbated Islamist-secular tensions and narrowed the focus of transition away from the revolutionary demand for, among other things, economic and social justice.

This development is part of a longer history: the Islamist-secular divide was in many ways a legacy of colonialism, exploited by the Bourgiba and Ben Ali regimes to generate power for their repressive regimes. More recently, Tunisia’s US/EU backed ‘war on terror’ was easily manipulated to become an instrument of state violence, allowing all forms of oppositional Islamist activism, and even religious practices, to be criminalised and constructed as a national security threat.

The revolutionary events of 2011 were made possible by cross-ideological civil resistance forged in the name of fighting despotism and achieving social and economic justice. However, the government’s failure to adequately address the root causes of social polarisation – including the legal and institutional framework that results in the criminalisation of all forms of Islamism  – could lead to its undoing.

In particular, the government’s failure to implement a concrete transitional justice process, or unseat the deep state’s power and ability to manipulate social divisions, has left it vulnerable and compromised. A transitional justice programme recognising the thousands of political prisoners as activists who contributed to resistance against Ben Ali’s hegemonic hold over the social and political spheres, dispelling once and for all the terrorist label applied to them, might redirect current divisions towards a fuller understanding of Ben Ali’s repression. It might also help to produce much-needed empathy for the suffering of fellow citizens, despite ideological differences, since Ben Ali made no ideological distinctions in his repression of oppositional voices.

By opening what Fadil Aliriza refers to as the ‘black box’ of the Interior Ministry, a more robust transitional justice programme could also distinguish individual criminality from the many corrupt judicial decisions and arbitrary detentions implemented under Tunisia’s ‘war on terror’. This would presumably go some way towards alleviating the valid concerns of many Tunisians regarding the security threat posed by some individuals released as part of the post-revolution 2011 amnesty. 

Some members of the government, including President Moncef Marzouki, from the secular CPR party, have stressed the importance of approaching terrorist acts through standard legal procedures. An exceptional, extra-constitutional legal process for terror cases may seem appropriate to the seriousness of the violence, but risks criminalising whole sections of society. Since the national security paradigm, based on unreformed anti-terror legislation, maintains its stronghold at the institutional level as well as in many hearts and minds, acts of violence are easily manipulated for political ends, and called upon to pursue exceptional solutions that benefit political interests more than they support democratic processes.

Moving beyond the ‘war on terror’ narrative

The rush to frame the Belaid and Brahmi assassinations along the lines of the Islamist terrorism narrative may confound more than clarify. Normalised during the ‘war on terror’ period, this approach unhelpfully conflates distinct movements, including moderate Islamist political parties, such as Nahda, and conservative and radical strains of salafism, including the ‘jihadi’ Ansar Ash-sharia, attributed by many with the recent acts of violence. Such conflation overlooks the particular contexts in which these movements emerged, as well as their distinct political agendas, theological interpretations and preferred forms of activism. The question of salafism in Tunisia moreover needs to be understood in its uniquely Tunisian context.

Until these recent acts of political violence, a consensus seemed to be emerging amongst prominent governing parties regarding the need for a dual-pronged approach to the rise of salafism in Tunisia. While the government advocated a more stringent security approach, designed to deter future violent manifestations and consider the (geo) political and financial interests that may lie behind them, it also recognised salafism to be a social phenomenon. Marzouki for instance, in an interview with the Algerian newspaper, El Khaber, referred to the need for a comprehensive ‘social programme to improve living conditions in the poor neighbourhoods where they [salafis] thrive’.

The mainstream perspective views the ultra-conservative strain of salafi Islam as an alien phenomenon, imported from the Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia in particular, to undermine what is often referred to as Tunisia’s ‘moderate’ and ‘modern’ brand of Islam. However, the social approaches to Tunisian salafism generally start from the premise that current forms of salafi radicalism are in large part a product of the former regime’s economic and political neglect and physical violence, as enacted through repressive national security policies and practices. As Cavatorta and Merone have argued, the salafis should be viewed as muhammashin (marginalised), who, in their political, economic and social marginalisation ‘represent the dark side of the development model that Ben Ali offered’.

Many analysts prefer to ignore these social factors and instead focus on and exceptionalise the potential/actual violence of salafis, advocating an equally exceptional response designed to protect national security, whatever violations of human rights may ensue as a result.  However, critics of this approach, have demonstrated both empirically and theoretically the counter-productive implications of such a response,  in that its repressive policies often have the effect of producing the very threats they seek to eliminate.

Many have accused the government of being too ‘soft’ on the militant groups deemed responsible for the two political assassinations, as well as other incidents of political violence in the aftermath of the revolution. The killing of eight soldiers by ‘armed militants’ is emblematic of the concerns over the Nahda-led government’s failure to ensure security. The national security paradigm conflates these various incidents of political violence under the ‘terrorism’ label, which is then automatically associated with an undistinguished range of Islamist movements and ideologies.

For its part, the government claims it has done much to increase security, including increasing army presence around the Algerian border, arresting and charging several hundred salafi activists in the aftermath of the US Embassy attack in Tunis last year, placing restrictions on Ansar Ash-sharia’s right to associate, and arresting several suspects involved in Belaid’s murder. The Ministry of Interior appears to be confident in its identification of suspects and accomplices in both assassinations.

Responding to the thousands of protesters that have taken to the streets in various parts of the country (both pro- as well as anti-government), in particular in the nation’s capital and in Bardo, where the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) is located, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh vowed to speed up the constitution writing process and seek out consensus on contentious issues, prepare for elections to be held on the December 17, 2013, double efforts to combat terrorism and crime, as well as focus government energy on ameliorating the country’s socio-economic predicament. 

Many oppositional activists feel these actions do not go far enough in addressing the seriousness of the situation. In response, the country’s largest trade union (UGTT) as well as one of the two centre-left secular parties in Tunisia’s governing troika, Ettakatol, are calling for the dissolution of Tunisia’s government on the basis of incompetent executive decision-making regarding the country’s security.

However, other vocal oppositional leaders, dissatisfied with the non-exceptional response of the government, are taking it one step further, demanding the dissolution of the Nahda-dominated NCA. This is despite the fact that the Assembly is close to completing its work on the constitution, and is still to pass crucial legislation on transitional justice and electoral law, a necessary step for organising the country’s much-anticipated elections.

Having framed the recent violence in terms of a continued programme of Islamist terrorism, the exceptional call to dissolve the constituent assembly and replace it with body of ‘technocrats’ might appear natural. However, this would surely do more to thoroughly derail Tunisia’s democratic future than the assassinations themselves.

Getting back to the aims of the revolution

In the current environment, where the sometimes reckless politicking of the political elite is increasingly out of touch with the desires and aspirations of large swaths of the Tunisian population, yet amplified by a largely unreconstructed national media, more nuanced approaches are often neglected. In this context, the (re)emergence of a virulent secular-Islamist polarisation distracts and limits the options of the Nahda-led coalition government in its response to political violence. The coalition is certainly not blameless here. As with its approach to enacting meaningful institutional and socio-economic reforms and transitional justice, the coalition government’s timidity in taking on the myths of the national security state also undermines its revolutionary credentials and governing legitimacy.

Despite all this, many Tunisian activists are rejecting the attempts of the political elite to control the narrative in a way that further inflames an already tense situation. In an op-ed penned for Le Monde, ‘No to the Assassination of the Tunisian Revolution’, a group of Tunisian academics and activists called on opposition leaders to stop playing ‘pyromaniac fireman’. Despite the ‘shortcomings’ of the NCA, they referred to it as the only remaining space where ‘political compromise’ can and should occur.

In addition, a bold petition on the activist news website Nawaat, already signed by over 700 Tunisians, challenges the very exclusionary logic on which secular-Islamist polarisation is based. Wary of Tunisia following Egypt’s example, it calls for dialogue amongst all sides to avoid further escalation and violence, a decisive transitional justice programme, resistance to the logic of the national security state, and for a return in the public debate to the original demands of the Tunisian revolution: ‘work, freedom and national dignity’.

Dr Corinna Mullin is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Tunis as well as a Research Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 

Dr Ian Patel works in the law department at King’s College London. He specialises in criminal justice, criminal law, and international human rights. He is a fellow at the International State Crime Initiative.