Tunisia and the Assassination of Belaid

"O my homeland: They have made you a horror series
Whose events we follow every evening on the hour.
So how can we see you if they cut the power?"

-- Nizar Kabbani, a Syrian poet

Alarm, murder and the university

On 6 February 2013, I felt very lazy and could not wake up and get myself out of bed. From the bed, I could see the weather which looked, beyond the glass of one of my room windows, too cold and gloomy to facilitate an easy end to snoozing. The previous evening, I had set the alarm at 7.30 a.m., but I ignored it though it was a fairly loud alarm.

Then between 9:24 a.m. and 9:43 a.m., I received four phone calls from my brother, my father, a friend, and a cousin respectively to notify me that an assassination had just been committed not far from my place. I found myself rushing around trying to get ready in front of my TV screen as if I had been late for one of my key lectures at the university.

The most-watched Tunisian Satellite channel delivered breaking news in Arabic and in red and white -- the two colors in the Tunisian flag -- that "
Chokri Belaid [who was becoming a prominent opposition leader in Tunisia] was hit by several bullets fired at his car as he was getting ready to go to work earlier today".

I went to my university the following day for an urgent administrative task and found it empty, as if there had been an evacuation warning. Most professors and students had either joined the mobs who are back on the streets again or are stuck to their television sets watching the unfolding news about the tragedy. On 7 and 8 February 2013, both academics and students held a two-day strike in response to Belaid's murder. After the breaking news, the tragedy was covered in detail on several local, Arab, and world channels.

Despite assassination threats against himself and his fierce political criticism of the government, Belaid sought to continue as ordinary a life as possible. He would often drive without any bodyguard protection and the morning of his assassination on 6 February 2013 was one such occasion. While investigators have received the results of the autopsy to try to identify the gunman, an inquiry is still ongoing.

Political implications in Tunisia: the climax

In the wake of the murder, the political scene in Tunisia has ratcheted up to a harsher level of tension. Most opposition leaders, along with Belaid's relatives, hold the Islamist-led government politically and morally accountable for his murder as the perpetrators remain at large.

As political uncertainty continues to grip Tunisia, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali made a public statement on the same day of the assassination to express his decision to form a "mini-government" of national technocrats who do not belong to any party. This decision has been opposed by his own party and the ruling troika alliance, with the sole exception of the Attakatol party (Tunisia's socialist party).

The shock of the murder added to the sense of unrest that sent protesters back onto the streets after consultations to replace the current cabinet failed. When push comes to shove, the large majority of Tunisians, who are very peaceful in nature, have only the streets to make their voices and dissatisfaction heard. But security measures by Tunisia's authorities to protect protesters and political leaders from both the troika and opposition parties, who are victims of violence, are fatally unsatisfactory and unsuccessful.

Tunisian media reported people's fears that the assassination of Belaid could push Tunisia into a new cycle of violence, because the so-called Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution -- violent militias which were originally formed to protect neighborhoods during the few weeks after the 14 January uprising but have grown close to the Islamist ruling party -- have been indicted by some courts on violence charges. It is also thought that they were responsible for attacks targeting meetings of some opposition parties, unionists, and even one of the most moderate Islamist leaders, Abdelfattah Mourou. However, even the most radical Ennahda (Tunisia's Islamist party) leaders denied any involvement in those violent acts and, more importantly, in Belaid's assassination.

Regardless of the perpetrators' identity, the murder can be seen as a new climax in the modern history of Tunisia. Habib Kazdaghli, professor of history and dean of Manouba College in Tunis, who has become an eminent figure in the historical clash between secularists and Islamists in Tunisian Universities, contends that academics and students went on strike because they thought that Tunisia has reached a critical turning point in its modern history. It is worth noting here that Professor Kazdaghli was brought before the court on charges of offending a veiled student. Likewise, Manouba College was the scene of a long sit-in by Salafist students and a focus of the struggle in post-uprising Tunisia over the role of Islam in public life in general, and at universities in particular.

Tunisia and the West now

These events are obviously extremely troubling. Most people in the West, or at least in the U.S., still see Tunisia as one of the so-called Arab Spring's success stories. A government has been formed, and in comparison to events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, things in Tunisia have remained relatively calm. So the idea that events could quickly spiral out of control here as well is, I think, very dispiriting to those who saw the Arab Spring as a great hope for changing the power dynamics in the region. My sense is that people in the U.S. should still remain more optimistic about the situation in Tunisia in comparison to the other countries I mentioned. It is sad to say, but until things get completely out of control, people in the U.S. news media tend not to pay that much attention to events in Tunisia. I would say the fact that there is a liberal (or more liberal) opposition that is still willing to stand up and exert its influence in Tunisia is a hopeful sign. The fact that the Islamist ruling party feels the need to balance the views of both the Salafists and the liberals is also a good sign for democracy, even if it ends up leaving a lot of people dissatisfied. I guess the question is whether the Salafists (and the liberals, I suppose) learn to live with a certain level of dissatisfaction or whether they will resort to violence, assassinations, and the like to try to impose their will on others. This is how democracy works. Despite George W. Bush's manifest flaws, he won two elections in the U.S., so many Americans had to live with their dissatisfaction and/or work within the system to change things. Ultimately democracy will rise or fall in Tunisia based on whether people here are willing to buy in to the system. But if the Salafists, for example, refuse to accept any real compromise, or use violence and intimidation to swing things their way, it will never work. There will always be an element of chaos.

Fighting extremism and violence in the long run can only be achieved through education. Universities will have a decisive role to play in the new Tunisia. Academics are now called upon to fight their laziness and stop snoozing.

Dr. Hammouda Salhi is professor of translation and culture studies at the University of Tunis El Manar

"O my homeland: They have made you a horror series
Whose events we follow every evening on the hour.
So how can we see you if they cut the power?"

-- Nizar Kabbani, a Syrian poet

Alarm, murder and the university

On 6 February 2013, I felt very lazy and could not wake up and get myself out of bed. From the bed, I could see the weather which looked, beyond the glass of one of my room windows, too cold and gloomy to facilitate an easy end to snoozing. The previous evening, I had set the alarm at 7.30 a.m., but I ignored it though it was a fairly loud alarm.

Then between 9:24 a.m. and 9:43 a.m., I received four phone calls from my brother, my father, a friend, and a cousin respectively to notify me that an assassination had just been committed not far from my place. I found myself rushing around trying to get ready in front of my TV screen as if I had been late for one of my key lectures at the university.

The most-watched Tunisian Satellite channel delivered breaking news in Arabic and in red and white -- the two colors in the Tunisian flag -- that "
Chokri Belaid [who was becoming a prominent opposition leader in Tunisia] was hit by several bullets fired at his car as he was getting ready to go to work earlier today".

I went to my university the following day for an urgent administrative task and found it empty, as if there had been an evacuation warning. Most professors and students had either joined the mobs who are back on the streets again or are stuck to their television sets watching the unfolding news about the tragedy. On 7 and 8 February 2013, both academics and students held a two-day strike in response to Belaid's murder. After the breaking news, the tragedy was covered in detail on several local, Arab, and world channels.

Despite assassination threats against himself and his fierce political criticism of the government, Belaid sought to continue as ordinary a life as possible. He would often drive without any bodyguard protection and the morning of his assassination on 6 February 2013 was one such occasion. While investigators have received the results of the autopsy to try to identify the gunman, an inquiry is still ongoing.

Political implications in Tunisia: the climax

In the wake of the murder, the political scene in Tunisia has ratcheted up to a harsher level of tension. Most opposition leaders, along with Belaid's relatives, hold the Islamist-led government politically and morally accountable for his murder as the perpetrators remain at large.

As political uncertainty continues to grip Tunisia, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali made a public statement on the same day of the assassination to express his decision to form a "mini-government" of national technocrats who do not belong to any party. This decision has been opposed by his own party and the ruling troika alliance, with the sole exception of the Attakatol party (Tunisia's socialist party).

The shock of the murder added to the sense of unrest that sent protesters back onto the streets after consultations to replace the current cabinet failed. When push comes to shove, the large majority of Tunisians, who are very peaceful in nature, have only the streets to make their voices and dissatisfaction heard. But security measures by Tunisia's authorities to protect protesters and political leaders from both the troika and opposition parties, who are victims of violence, are fatally unsatisfactory and unsuccessful.

Tunisian media reported people's fears that the assassination of Belaid could push Tunisia into a new cycle of violence, because the so-called Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution -- violent militias which were originally formed to protect neighborhoods during the few weeks after the 14 January uprising but have grown close to the Islamist ruling party -- have been indicted by some courts on violence charges. It is also thought that they were responsible for attacks targeting meetings of some opposition parties, unionists, and even one of the most moderate Islamist leaders, Abdelfattah Mourou. However, even the most radical Ennahda (Tunisia's Islamist party) leaders denied any involvement in those violent acts and, more importantly, in Belaid's assassination.

Regardless of the perpetrators' identity, the murder can be seen as a new climax in the modern history of Tunisia. Habib Kazdaghli, professor of history and dean of Manouba College in Tunis, who has become an eminent figure in the historical clash between secularists and Islamists in Tunisian Universities, contends that academics and students went on strike because they thought that Tunisia has reached a critical turning point in its modern history. It is worth noting here that Professor Kazdaghli was brought before the court on charges of offending a veiled student. Likewise, Manouba College was the scene of a long sit-in by Salafist students and a focus of the struggle in post-uprising Tunisia over the role of Islam in public life in general, and at universities in particular.

Tunisia and the West now

These events are obviously extremely troubling. Most people in the West, or at least in the U.S., still see Tunisia as one of the so-called Arab Spring's success stories. A government has been formed, and in comparison to events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, things in Tunisia have remained relatively calm. So the idea that events could quickly spiral out of control here as well is, I think, very dispiriting to those who saw the Arab Spring as a great hope for changing the power dynamics in the region. My sense is that people in the U.S. should still remain more optimistic about the situation in Tunisia in comparison to the other countries I mentioned. It is sad to say, but until things get completely out of control, people in the U.S. news media tend not to pay that much attention to events in Tunisia. I would say the fact that there is a liberal (or more liberal) opposition that is still willing to stand up and exert its influence in Tunisia is a hopeful sign. The fact that the Islamist ruling party feels the need to balance the views of both the Salafists and the liberals is also a good sign for democracy, even if it ends up leaving a lot of people dissatisfied. I guess the question is whether the Salafists (and the liberals, I suppose) learn to live with a certain level of dissatisfaction or whether they will resort to violence, assassinations, and the like to try to impose their will on others. This is how democracy works. Despite George W. Bush's manifest flaws, he won two elections in the U.S., so many Americans had to live with their dissatisfaction and/or work within the system to change things. Ultimately democracy will rise or fall in Tunisia based on whether people here are willing to buy in to the system. But if the Salafists, for example, refuse to accept any real compromise, or use violence and intimidation to swing things their way, it will never work. There will always be an element of chaos.

Fighting extremism and violence in the long run can only be achieved through education. Universities will have a decisive role to play in the new Tunisia. Academics are now called upon to fight their laziness and stop snoozing.

Dr. Hammouda Salhi is professor of translation and culture studies at the University of Tunis El Manar

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