“Tens of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets amid scattered violence today to mourn secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid, whose assassination has plunged Tunisia deeper into political crisis,” Reuters reports:
Braving chilly rain, at least 50,000 people turned out for Belaid’s funeral in his home district of Jebel al-Jaloud in the capital, chanting anti-Islamist and anti-government slogans. “The people want a new revolution,” shouted mourners in Tunis, who also sang the national anthem.
While Belaid had only a modest political following, his criticism of Ennahda policies spoke for many Tunisians who fear religious radicals are bent on snuffing out freedoms won in the first of the revolts that rippled through the Arab world. Secular groups have accused the Islamist-led government of a lax response to attacks by ultra-orthodox Salafi Islamists on cinemas, theatres and bars in recent months.
Jalila Hedhli-Peugnet, president of the NGO Think Ahead for Tunisia, reflected the prevailing sentiment when she told France 24 that Belaid “was not assassinated under the dictatorship of Ben Ali, now he is assassinated under the democracy of Ennahda”.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali offered to replace the current government with a cabinet of non-political technocrats prior to fresh elections. But his colleagues in the Islamist Ennahda party have rejected the proposal, which would also face technical obstacles.
“The position of Ennahda is that the troika (the three-party ruling coalition) will continue to lead the country but it is open to a partial ministerial reshuffle,” said party spokesman Abdallah Zouari, the same stance as before Belaid’s assassination.
“Despite the risks of delay, I think an extended transition period would have more positive implications for Tunisia’s long-term stability and institutional growth,” he says.
Another analyst believes elections could further destabilize the country’s fragile democratic transition.
“If the parties can’t agree on a caretaker government, there’s a significant risk of a political crisis and a partial breakdown in Tunisia’s democratic transition,” says Geoffrey Howard, a North Africa analyst at Control Risks.
The assassination of Belaid and the dissolution of the government “increase the uncertainty about the country’s political transition, Fitch Ratings says. “The risk that divisions among the population and politicians will result in intensifying social and political violence has risen.”
Political analysts said protracted deadlock could aggravate the unrest, Reuters reports, which has underscored the chasm between Islamists and secular groups who fear that freedoms of expression, cultural liberty and women’s rights are in jeopardy just two years after the Western-backed dictatorship crumbled.
Army to step in?
“In the likely event that there is no agreement, civil unrest will increase, reaching a level that cannot be contained by the police,” said Firas Abi Ali of the Exclusive Analysis think-tank.
“If unrest continued for more than two weeks, the army would probably reluctantly step in and back a technocrat government, as well as fresh elections for a new Constituent Assembly.”
Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s promise that Tunisia would become “a democratic society and a model in the Arab world” is losing credibility, says one analyst.
“In fact, the current government is facing an inescapable challenge: to demonstrate its commitment to democracy over any ideology or religion. And that should include credible action against Salafist thugs,” writes Said Temsamani.
Tunisia will likely pull through the crisis, said Omayya Siddik, a former opposition party leader and one-time official in the current government.
“We are not yet in the moment of collapse of the revolution,” said Siddik, now president of al-Moughadima, a Tunis think tank. “But we are now at a very sensitive moment.”