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Disrupting Tunisia's democratic transition

January 23, 2014 at 7:22 am

Tunisia was the country that kick-started the Arab Spring in 2011, after a wave of mass protests led to long-time dictator President Zine el Abidine Ben-Ali standing down. As neighbouring countries remain mired in strife, conflict, and troubled transitions to democracy, Tunisia has rumbled quietly on in the background, apparently managing its shift with relative ease. The New York Times this week described the country as “the last bastion of relative stability among the Arab countries”.

Is that changing? Today, Tunisia is in the throes of a nationwide strike and protests calling for the government to step down have broken out across the country, after the leader of an opposition party was killed yesterday. Mohamed Brahmi led the Movement of the People party. He was shot by unidentified gunmen on motorbikes as he sat in his car on Thursday morning, making him the second politician to be killed so far this year. In February, the murder of the prominent secularist Chokri Belaid triggered mass protests and forced the Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, to step down.

Tunisia’s largest trade union, UGTT, called today’s strike to protest against “terrorism, violence, and murders”. It does not lay the blame at anyone’s door, but Brahmi’s relatives and supporters have alleged that Ennahda, the governing party, were complicit. Similar accusations were levelled over the death of Belaid – a more prominent figure, who was more critical of Ennahda, the Islamist party which came to power in 2011. Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh denied that his party had any hand in the murder, calling Brahmi’s killing “a catastrophe for Tunisia”. He told AFP news agency: “Those behind this crime want to lead the country towards civil war and to disrupt the democratic transition.”

President Moncef Marzouki, speaking to France’s Le Monde newspaper, reiterated that those behind the killing wanted to destabilise Tunisia, adding that he had “no doubt” that Belaid and Brahmi had been assassinated by the same people. Brahmi was not a secularist; he was a practising Muslim who believed in pan-Arab socialism. He was an opposition politician but was not particularly noted for being outspoken in his criticism of the government. Some see this as proof that Ennahda was not responsible for his death.

Yet protests continue. Last night tear gas was fired into the crowds. Ennhada’s headquarters were attacked in Sidi Bouzid, which is both Brahmi’s hometown and the place where the Arab Spring protests first began in December 2010. Today, a sit-in is taking place at the National Constituent Assembly in Tunis. Meanwhile, Ennhada supporters have called for their own protest against the killing after Friday prayers.

This is a politically sensitive moment for Tunisia. Ever since the revolution, there have been deep divisions between secularists and Islamists. Just as in Egypt, there is a significant section of Tunisian society that feels that their ultimate vision of a secular democracy has been hijacked by Islamists. The current government is led by Ennhada, whose Egyptian counterpart has just been ousted by the army. Popular unrest is growing over continued economic problems and increasing Islamist extremism (some have said that terrorists were responsible for the two assassinations).

The level of anger being expressed in the streets today points to frustrations far wider than the death of one politician. How it plays out remains to be seen but as this makes clear, the transition to democracy is not an easy one.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.