Chokri Belaid Assassination: Tunisia’s Turning Point

This article was co-written with Nura Suleiman.

Admittedly, Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda Party’s rise to government in October 2011 came with high hopes: quick social and economic reforms that would decrease staggeringly high unemployment rates, a new constitution, affordable milk prices for all families, and a sense of security across the country.

Ennahda assured skittish secularists and investors that burquinis would not replace bikinis and Tunisian wine would still flow. Ennahda invited the secularist Congress for the Republic Party and the leftist Ettakol Party to join its ranks and together they formed the at-one-time indomitable self-dubbed Troika. With Ennahda’s Hamadi Jebali as prime minister, Ettakatol’s Mustapha Ben Jaafer as president of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), and Congress for the Republic’s Moncef Marzouki as president, the Troikawas were ready to engage.

Over a year has now passed since the government was ready. Though there are rough drafts of what is to become Tunisia’s new constitution, the NCA’s progress is mired in a lack of agreement and frequent member absences. With comparable inability to reach consensus, the Islamist-secular Troika has polarized political life, halting the country’s reform, proliferating the population’s frustrations, warding off investors and attracting criticism from figures of the opposition.

The scorecard is dismal: 34 mausoleums damaged across the country, artists targeted or beaten for expressing liberal views, alcohol-selling establishments in various cities vandalized, and local American institutions dangerously assaulted. Despite its overwhelming control of the government, Ennahda has simply condemned the cycle of violence, taking little action to arrest those responsible and quell Tunisians’ fear.

Acts of violence took a shocking turn this week. On Wednesday morning, February 6, leading opposition figure, Chokri Belaid was assassinated. Two young men are said to have shot him three times in his head and chest in front of his residence in the country’s capital. Tunisians took to the streets of downtown Tunis to express anger at the government and more specifically toward the Ministry of Interior for failing to protect Belaid. Protests erupted in cities across the country; citizens in Sidi Bouzid, Sfax, and Gafsa burned Ennahda party headquarters and clashed with police forces.

Belaid, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist, was a leading member of Tunisia’s leftist opposition alliance, Front Populaire, and an ardent critic of the governing party. The night before his murder, “Chokri called for a national dialogue to confront political violence,” said Amna Guellali, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Tunis. His death marks the first Tunisian political assassination since independence leader Salah Ben Youssef’s assassination in 1961.

Though the Ministry of Interior has begun investigating the murder of Belaid, no information on those who might be responsible has been made public. Allegations fly; Belaid’s family accused Ennahda, while Prime Minister Jebali blamed the assassination on opponents of the Revolution and democracy. 

The damage to Ennahda’s reputation is profound. In an environment of extreme volatility, further targeted assassinations would soil the aspirations of the Tunisian revolution, and send the country into a spiral of further political, social and economic instability.

Prime Minister Jebali addressed the nation on the night of Belaid’s assassination and proposed a plan, without consultating his party, to dissolve the government and replace it with a temporary cabinet of technocrats. The next day, Ennadha firmly rejected the plan. “We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with others parties about forming a coalition government,” said Abdelhamid Jelassi, Ennahda’s Vice President, in a statement reported on the party’s website.

Meanwhile, opposition parties Nidaa Tounis, El Massar and Al-Jamhouri reconvened Wednesday to discuss their self-imposed suspension from the NCA and a unified call for the ministers of Interior and of Justice to resign.

Two days after Chokri Belaid’s murder no one from the government has resigned, no new government plan has been announced, and no murder suspects have been identified. What is to come remains uncertain. Incertitude is all that is certain.

Today begins a general strike called by the Popular Labor Union (UGTT). After Belaid’s funeral, citizens in Tunis will return to Habib Bourguia Avenue, the site of tear gas, police batons and thousands protesters since Belaid’s death two days ago. This will be the second general strike in Tunisia’s history, the first known to locals as Black Thursday in 1978, witnessed the death 42 people.

How Tunisians, politicians and citizens at large decide to react to Chokri Belaid’s assassination today marks a defining moment in the country’s history and in its revolutionary transition.