Tunisia: in search of a political exit from political violence

In addition to the transitional process falling into paralysis, there is also a palpable sense of insecurity. The political assassinations, once relatively unknown in Tunisia, are now picking up their own deadly momentum.

Christopher K. Lamont
2 August 2013

The day after the July 25th assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, a leftist Popular Front member of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly, newspaper headlines proclaimed a “descent into flames” and a “new wave of terror.” Brahmi’s assassination, on a national holiday, stunned the country both because of the act itself, Tunisia’s second political assassination within six months, and its target, a relatively low profile opposition politician. Indeed, unlike Chokri Belaid, who often lambasted Tunisia’s Islamists prior to his assassination in February 2013, Brahmi was a much less flamboyant figure on Tunisia’s radical left. Thus, reports of Brahmi’s body being riddled with 14 bullets and of his wife carrying his lifeless body to the hospital fueled a sense of shock and outrage among a secular opposition, which now increasingly perceives itself as being under siege. 

While developments in Egypt grab international headlines, Tunisia is under deepening polarization between Islamists and secularists. According to Hamadi Redissi, a political science professor at the University of Tunis, this polarization between Ennahdha, the more centrist Nidaa Tounes and the leftist Popular Front, is “more dramatic” than recent clashes that claimed over a hundred lives in Cairo. This isn’t because the death toll is anywhere close to Egypt’s, but due to a prolonged institutional vacuum created by a constitution drafting process that began in late 2011 and is yet to be completed. If Tunisia’s political parties cannot move beyond this chronic political discord, we may see a slow process of state collapse. With the absence of a clear electoral timetable or an institutional framework for a post-National Constituent Assembly (NCA) period, Tunisia appears to be in a state of paralysis. This is also adding fuel to the growing discontent with Ennahdha's three party coalition government, known as the troika, which contains two small secular parties: the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. As constitution drafting has taken over, day-to-day government duties such as the provision of basic services have lagged behind, resulting in public discontent and frustration with the NCA. The tension continues to mount and is increasingly vocalized in the form of demands for the dissolution of Tunisia’s only democratically elected legislative body. In short, with debates over identity and religion drowning out the more mundane tasks of providing basic needs, Ennahdha’s troika puts at risk both the constitution drafting process and the survival of state institutions.

Political paralysis and political violence

In addition to the transitional process falling into paralysis, there is also a palatable sense of insecurity. The political assassinations, once relatively unknown in Tunisia, are now picking up their own deadly momentum. Indeed, in the aftermath of Chokri Belaid’s assassination on February 6, 2013, La Presse, made note of Tunisia’s last political assassination which took place 6 decades prior; the killing of labor union leader Farhat Hached in 1952, a towering figure in Tunisia’s modern history to which Belaid was compared.

Belaid’s death triggered a dramatic political crisis and popular protest that caught Ennahdha off guard. They faced divergent internal voices, which oscillated between recalcitrance and reconciliation. Their initial response was a call for the creation of a technocratic government, they then retrenched to only a cabinet reshuffle. In the end, Belaid’s death led to the resignation of Ennahdha Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who isolated himself within the movement by promoting a reconciliatory line toward Tunisia’s secular opposition. Unfortunately for Jebali, the Ennahdha movement was unwilling to give up what it had won through the ballot box, political power. And, instead of withdrawing from government, Ennahdha withdrew Jebali.

With Jebali removed from office, Ennahdha’s troika quickly formed a new government under Ali Laarayedh in late February. Laarayedh, who had served as Minister of Interior under Jebali, seemed at first an awkward choice given concerns over the ministry’s inability to protect politicians from assassination. Nevertheless, when Laarayedh became Prime Minister, his successor Lotfi Ben Jeddou, an independent political figure, and the newly appointed Minister of Interior was left with the task of investigating Belaid’s assassination. However, the Belaid investigation failed to bring about the arrests of the alleged ringleaders.

Enter the Salafis

Yet somehow just hours after Brahmi’s murder when thousands were taking to the streets in protest, there was a break in the Belaid case in which the authorities announced they had identified suspects for both the Belaid and Brahmi murders. Ben Jeddou, in a surreal press conference on July 26, just one day after Brahmi’s death, declared that Boubaker Hakim and Lotfi Ezzine were the two leading suspects and they had supposedly used the same weapon to perpetrate both crimes. Whether this press conference was the result of serious investigative work or a mere tactic to calm protestors remains unknown.

If political assassinations and nationwide protests didn’t create enough turbulence for Tunisia’s transition, a concurrent wave of more indiscriminate Salafist violence emanating from a militant stronghold on Mount Chaambi is testing the ability of Tunisia’s transitional authorities to maintain security. Months of low level conflict around Mount Chaambi between the Tunisian Army and what are consistently described by Tunisian authorities as a relatively small group of armed Salafis, boiled over on July 29 when a militant ambush left 8 Tunisian Army soldiers dead. In the face of growing casualties on Mount Chaambi and rumors of the existence of tunnels and large numbers of armed fighters, the Tunisian Army should secure the area or we may see growing pieces of Tunisian territory slip from Tunis’ control. Furthermore, suggestions that Boubaker Hakim may have emerged from the ranks of the Chaambi militants, and the mysterious car bombing outside of La Goulette police station raises the spectre that the second half of 2013 could see more violence spilling over beyond the Chaambi region.

Search for a political exit

Despite Ennahdha taking a lashing from a wide range of secular opposition parties in the days following Brahmi’s murder, they are fighting back in an attempt to recapture political momentum.  On July 29, Prime Minister Laarayedh promised new elections in December 2013. However, without a constitution it is unclear what these elections are for. The following day Ennahdha issued a statement reaffirming the NCA’s legitimacy and calling for a national coalition to realize the goals of the January 14, 2011 revolution. Ennahdha is now focused on averting any attempt to dissolve the NCA, where they are dominant, and appear to be willing to accept a new government within the framework of the NCA. Ettakatol, Ennahda’s coalition partner, is now calling for a national unity government, which may be the middle ground that could save Tunisia if its elected legislative body were to be dissolved. However, with over 60 NCA members from Nidaa Tounes and the Popular Front having withdrawn from the interim legislature, and protests continuing to take place around the NCA, it may be too late to find a way out of political violence.

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