In the aftermath of an assassination and violent protests, a fundamental ideological divide in Tunisia is now clearer than ever. Polarization between Tunisia’s secular and Islamist political groups comes as the country is struggling to maintain stability and revive its economy.
The assassination of Chokri Belaid, the prominent opposition figure sparked mass protests across the country facing Tunisia with a political impasse. While many blamed the ruling Ennahdha party and called for the government to resign, many others are defending the legitimacy of an elected government. The Islamist Ennahda party won 42 percent of seats in the first post-Arab Awakening elections in October 2011 and has been ruling the country in a coalition with two secular parties, Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol.
Belaid who is well known for his sharp criticism of Ennahdha and Islamists in general was shot four times as he was leaving his home in Tunis February 6. The 48 years old secular activist died of his wounds the same day. Belaid was the leader of the leftist Democratic Patriots Party (Watad), which joined the Front Popular, a coalition of opposition groups. Neither the motives for the assassination nor the attacker’s identity have so far been revealed.
Upon hearing the news of his death, mass protests took place in Tunis. The local offices of Ennahdha were vandalized in many areas across the country and a police officer died. Two days later, a general strike was announced and more than one million Tunisians joined Belaid’s funeral, according to Tunisian media. Mourners demanded a second revolution and called for the government to quit. Outside the cemetery, some perpetrators set fire to a number of cars. Security forces fired tear gas and clashed with mourners.
The next day and as a response, pro Ennahdha demonstrated in Tunis the capital defending the party and its legitimacy. The demonstrators shouted “France Degage” (or leave) as they accused France of the killing.
Following the assassination, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced that Tunisia is to form a non-partisan government of technocrats to run the country until elections can be held as soon as possible.
"After the failure of negotiations between parties on a cabinet reshuffle, I decided to form a small technocrat government," Jebali said in a televised address to the nation.
He further explained that the new ministers would have no ‘political affiliation” and would not run for office in the upcoming elections.
This decision was immediately rejected by both Ennadha party and CPR and backed by Ettakatol and other opposition parties. Jebali who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his political affiliation with Ennahdha during the former regime, replied that if the proposed technocrat’s government was rejected by the national constituent assembly, he would resign.
Many have argued that the assassination has only shown the depth of division between Islamists and secular groups in Tunisia. Each group has its own vision for the future, the role of religion and what Tunisia should look like. However this political debate should not overshadow the economic issues that gave rise to the revolution in the first place.