Tunisia‘s ruling Islamists today dissolved the government, announced a new administration of technocrats and promised fresh elections after the murder of an opposition leader sparked riots and the biggest protests since the revolution two years ago.
The decision by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali came hours after the assassination prompted “claims of government negligence – if not outright complicity – and bolstered fears that Tunisia’s transition to democracy will be far more chaotic than originally hoped.”
Offices of Ennahda, the majority ruling party, were attacked and protests erupted in the capital, Tunis, and several provincial towns in the wake of the killing of Shokri Belaid, a secular leftist who had warned about rising political violence on Tunisian TV on Tuesday night.
“I watched it and it was a chilling premonition of his own assassination,” said Mounir Khelifa, an English professor at Tunis’s Manouba University.
“We’re in a climate of political violence now,” said Amna Guellali, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Tunis. “Last month, there were various leaders targeted, various meetings of political parties disrupted and assaulted,” she said.
Belaid had called for a national dialogue to confront political violence, she said.
“He said political violence was becoming more organized due to the laxity of the government,” she said. “This just adds to the tragedy.”
During his TV appearance, Belaid called for the dissolution of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, which claims to focus on curbing the activities of former regime elements.
“In practice, AP reports, opposition leaders such as Belaid said the leagues are Ennahda-backed goon squads that attack opposition rallies,” including a recent rally held by Belaid’s Popular Front in northern Tunisia.
“There are groups inside Ennahda inciting violence,” Belaid told the Nessma TV channel. “Rachid Ghannouchi considers the leagues to be the conscience of the nation, so the defense of the authors of violence is clear. All those who oppose Ennahda become the targets of violence.”
Belaid accused Ennahda allies of harassing a recent Democratic Patriots meeting, the Project on Middle East Democracy reports.
“There is a small but potent Salafi Jihadi militant segment in Tunisia that has become very dangerous,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “The killing of Chokri sends a message loud and clear that they will try to silence secular voices and they will accept no criticism even of the Islamist-based Ennahda government.”
“Ennahda is in power – they have a huge moral and legal responsibility to prevent extremist elements from undermining social peace and harmony,” said the LSE’s Gerges.
Recent tension between Islamists and secular Tunisians “has led to episodes of escalating political violence, often perpetrated by hard-line Islamists known as Salafis — but never before brazen assassinations like Wednesday’s,” The New York Times reports:
Mr. Belaid and others had accused Ennahda, the ruling Islamist party, of accommodating the Salafis by refusing to prosecute them or crack down on the groups. In recent days, Mr. Belaid, a lawyer who had received numerous death threats including from hard-line imams, had accused Islamists of carrying out an attack on a meeting of his supporters.
“At the end of our meeting, a group of Ennahda mercenaries and Salafists attacked our activists,” Mr. Belaid said.
Ennahda is allegedly linked to the Leagues, Al Arabiya reports, noting a recent general strike called by the General Union of Tunisian Labor (UGTT) after League thugs attacked union members.
Members of the league, which has been described as an organization “close to Ennahda that has developed a reputation for brutal violence,” were also accused of beating an opposition party official to death in October.
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi moved swiftly to denounce the killing and said it “threatens the entire nation, stability and the democratic transition.”
“Is it possible that the ruling party could carry out this assassination when it would disrupt investment and tourism?” Ghannouchi told Reuters, blaming elements trying to undermine Tunisia’s democratic transition.
“Tunisia today is in the biggest political stalemate since the revolution. We should be quiet and not fall into a spiral of violence. We need unity more than ever,” he said.
Other party officials pledged a full investigation and suggested that the killing was designed to damage the Islamist group.
“Ennahda is the main target of this crime. We believe that this was done to make Ennahda look in the eyes of our people like a failed party that can’t protect people,” said Lotfy Zitoun, a member of the party’s 20-member executive bureau.
But Belaid’s relatives and opposition activists openly accused Ennahda and its allies of being behind the assassination.
Belaid “was targeted because he has been on the front line criticizing Ennahda, and the Islamist-led government, and he has been denouncing what he called the attempts by the Islamists and the Salafists to impose on Tunisians a new way of life,” said Kamel Labidi, president of Tunisia’s independent media-reform commission.
Riccardo Fabiani, Eurasia analyst on Tunisia, described the killing as a “major failure for Tunisian politics”.
“The question is now what is Ennahda going to do and what are its allies going to do?” he said. “They could be forced to withdraw from the government which would lead to a major crisis in the transition.”
President Moncef Marzouki, who recently cautioned that tension between secularists and Islamists could lead to “civil war”, cancelled a visit to Egypt and cut short a trip to France, where he addressed the European Parliament.
“There are political forces inside Tunisia that don’t want this transition to succeed,” Marzouki said in Strasbourg.
“When one has a revolution, the counter revolution immediately sets in because those who lose power – it’s not only Ben Ali and his family – are the hundreds of thousands of people with many interests who see themselves threatened by this revolution.”
Some observers believe Ennahda could have done more to address the threat posed by the Salafists.
After Islamist militants torched the U.S. Embassy and the American Community School in Tunis last September, Marzouki told Time magazine’s Vivienne Walt that the government had seemed reluctant to intervene.
“We have to stop this phenomenon,” he said. “These people hate democracy, they do not want this democracy.”
By contrast, Walt reports, Ghannouchi rejected Marzouki’s words, saying in an interview that same day, “We don’t judge people based on what ideology they follow, but on their actions.”
The government’s “response to these attacks by Salafi groups is that it’s better to have dialogue with them and bring them into the political process rather than throw them in jail,” said Eric Goldstein, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch.
Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center who was in Tunis to meet with officials said the atmosphere was one of “shock and tension”.
“People are afraid this is a sign of things to come,” he said. “It could be the start of low-level instability, violence and protests on a regular basis. That’s the direction Egypt has gone in, Tunisia was supposed to be the exception to the rule but it looks like that might not be the case.”