The assassination of the political leader Chokri Belaid: is it the end of Tunisian exceptionalism?

Responses to his death may well mark the end of the line for Islamist politics as we know it in Tunisia.  It may also mark the rise of a unified opposition, which now realizes that its fight is not only, or no longer, for freedom of expression and association but an existential one, a matter of survival.

If political violence is rare in Tunisia, political assassinations in particular are almost non-existent.  That an assassination targets a household name of Tunisian politics and is performed in a spectacular style seems to have shaken Tunisians to the core.

Today as I write, February 6, two extraordinary events took place immediately upon confirmation that Chokri Belaid was assassinated at point blank with shots to the head in the parking lot of an apartment complex as he was leaving his house around 8 am.  The first event was spontaneous demonstrations across the country, which resulted in the sacking of several Al Nahda offices around the country.  The second was an historically unprecedented meeting between the key four opposition blocks, the Popular Front, the Republic Party, Al Masar, and Nida Tounes.  The scale of the attacks against Al Nahda as well as the unified stance of the opposition usher in a turning point in Tunisian politics.  But they also reveal what an iconic figure the 49 year old lawyer and secretary general of the Unified Patriotic Democratic Party (UPDP), Belaid, has become since the revolution.  Who was he?

Student activist in the 1980s, civil rights advocate since the 1990s and prominent anti-Ben Ali figure, Belaid has become a household name since January 2011, peering out at us from television screens almost daily with his trademark thick moustache, fluent speech and forceful opinions.  Imams in mosques took the trouble to smear him as an atheist (kafir); they accused him of being an informant for Ben Ali; the government blamed him for instigating strikes and demonstrations; and he was satirized in comedies and on social media.   At the same time, he was, just like his even more iconic friend and fellow leftist, Hamma Hammami, “humanized” in the eyes of the general public through human-interest stories such as television visits to his home, a regular presence in social programmes and even in Ramadhan entertainment shows.  In addition, Belaid was a burgeoning poet before devoting himself to politics. He often quoted the literary tradition at will and spoke a flawless Arabic. For these reasons, he could not be accused of being the traditional uprooted Francophile secular nor the customary dogmatic Marxist.  His death has something tragic about it. It was foretold in more than the many threats he received, publicly and in private.  As poet, he is best remembered for a poem dedicated to Husain Muruwa, the Lebanese intellectual assassinated by Islamists in the late 1990s.

Along with this “popular appeal”, Belaid maintained a strong line against economic and social neoliberal policies and vociferously opposed Islamist ideas.  His message as well as his profile seem to have resonated well with the core values of the revolution: work, dignity and freedom. His line of thought and action ran through Tunisian politics largely through the potent and ubiquitous Tunisian General Union of Labour (UGTT) where the Tunisian Left has maintained a strong presence at the regional as well as national levels.  The same is true of the student movement, which Belaid led and where he had his training as an activist.  His appeal has been complemented by a rather traditional leftist profile: he lived in a rented apartment with his wife and two young daughters; did not own car; spoke the dialect of the interior regions of the country and avoided glamorous and rich circles. (It is ironic that he was killed in a rental car, driven by someone who is now under suspicion of collaborating in the crime). This explains in part the popular outcry at his killing.

Behind Belaid’s personal and activist story lies the complex and compelling story of the Tunisian Left as a whole.  Responses to his death may well mark the end of the line for Islamist politics as we know it in Tunisia.  It may also mark the rise of a unified opposition, which now realizes that its fight is not only, or no longer, for freedom of expression and association but an existential one, a matter of survival. So far, they plan the following: a national funeral for Belaid; a one-day national strike, calling for the government to resign and freezing all the activities of the Constituent Assembly. If Belaid was a “thorn in the side of the Al Nahda, the Salafis and the government,” as he was called during his life, he is likely to be a decisive nail in their coffin now that he is dead. A first indication of this emerged almost immediately in the Prime Minister’s speech on national television today promiseing to bring to fruition the very ideas Belaid has long promoted, namely, a small government made up of technocrats disassociated from all political parties.  His ideas seem to have sent his party and coalition into disarray.  But amidst all this still-developing situation, one thing is now a reality: Tunisia, which prided itself on peaceful politics, is no longer an exception in the region. The choice of Belaid as the first victim of this violence is a calculated act deigned to maximize the effect and get rid of a powerful figure at one and the same time.        

About the author
Mohamed-Salah Omri is a tutorial fellow at St. John’s College and a Lecturer in Modern Arabic at the University of Oxford.