Once word spread of the assassination of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid, an outspoken critic of the Ennahda Islamist party, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets calling for the fall of the Ennahda-led government. Although the death of Belaid is the immediate cause of unrest, pressure has been mounting on the Islamist ruling party for some time. In recent months, Ennahda has come under attack for not taking a tougher position against violent Salafist groups and has repeatedly attempted and failed to reshuffle the government because it lacks support from opposition groups that are unwilling to join its coalition.
The impact of the assassination in Tunisia was apparent immediately: on Wednesday several opposition parties withdrew from the National Constituent Assembly. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced the dissolution of the government and said he would re-configure it with technocrats instead of party-affiliated leaders. On Thursday, however, Ennahda rejected Jebali’s decision, saying he had not sought the advice of his party before the announcement. The country’s largest trade union, The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), called for a general strike on Friday.
The Belaid assassination and subsequent explosion of anti-Ennahda sentiment comes in the context of already mounting pressure on the Islamist ruling party from all sides. Secularists and moderates have criticized Ennahda for being too sympathetic to hardline Salafists, many who continue to destroy historical Tunisian heritage sites and Sufi shrines. Political infighting has also increased within the Troika, a coalition comprised of Ennahda, CPR, and Ettakatol.
In late November the interior city of Siliana erupted into violent protest with residents demanding greater economic development of the neglected region and the removal of a controversial Ennahda-appointed governor. Following the Siliana protests, President Moncef Marzouki called for reshuffling the cabinet to shape a more technocratic and less politically-based government. By early February the cabinet was unchanged, and Marzouki threatened that his Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) would withdraw from the Ennahda-led ruling coalition if two key Ennahda ministers were not replaced. With rumors emerging that the Troika may split, on Monday February 4, Marzouki appeared on television to clarify that he would not resign.
Adding even greater opposition to Ennahda, in late January the increasingly influential Nidaa Tounes party formed the Alliance for Tunisia, joining forces with al-Massar and al-Joumhouri to present a unified front against Ennahda in upcoming elections. In early January, Nidaa Tounes also threatened to bring Ennahda to the ICC for crimes against humanity, blaming the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a quasi-militia group linked to Ennahda, for the murder of a Nidaa Tounes member last October.
It is within this already tense political environment that the assassination of Belaid occurred, which has the potential to destabilize a precarious balancing act that Prime Minister Jabali has tried to maintain. Below are further details regarding the victim, the incident, the response of various Tunisian stakeholders, and how this fits within the larger context of the transition in Tunisia.
Chokri Belaid was a politician and lawyer. He served as secretary general of the Unified Democratic Nationalist Party and was previously a member of the High Authority for Achievement of the Revolutionary Objectives (HAARO), an important commission appointed by the pre-National Constituent Assembly (NCA) government. In October 2012 Belaid’s Unified Democratic National Party partnered with a number of left-wing parties to form the Popular Front, a moderate opposition group established to counter both Ennahda and the increasingly powerful Nida Tounes party. The Popular Front has only three seats in the NCA.
Belaid was shot in the head and neck outside his home in Tunis. An interior ministry spokesperson said, “A man opened fire on Chokri Belaid and then fled with a second person who was waiting on a motorcycle.” Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh told Tunisian radio Mosaique FM that two unknown middle-aged men were involved. Police have yet to arrest any suspects.
Belaid was vehemently anti-Ennahda. He accused the party of accommodating Salafists by refusing to prosecute them. During a Tunisian TV interview Belaid even went so far as to suggest that Ennahda gave Salafist a green light to carry out attacks. Belaid received death threats including several from hardline imams, and he accused Islamists of carrying out an attack on a meeting of his supporters just days earlier.
Belaid’s strong anti-Ennahda stance led many Tunisians to believe the Islamist party was behind the attack, although there is no evidence to support this claim.
Street reaction: Thousands gathered in front of the interior ministry in Tunis, but protests were not limited to the capital. There were also protests in the central desert town of Kebili, Zarzis in the southeast, Sfax, Gabès, Gafsa, Sid Bouzid, Kasserine, Mezzouna, Le Kef, and Monastir. Multiple regional Ennahda offices were attacked and some set ablaze.
Political reaction: Four opposition parties–Nidaa Tounes, al-Massar, the Popular Front, and al-Joumhouri–withdrew from the NCA and called for a general strike on Thursday. Collectively, these opposition groups comprise roughly ninety of the NCA’s 217 seats.
The Nidaa Tounes party: Party leaders blamed Ennahda for the assassination, arguing that the party was complicit because of its sympathetic treatment of terrorists and violent criminals.
Prime Minister and Ennahda leader Hemadi Jebali: He was quoted saying “Belaid was killed, but the real target behind the assassination was the Tunisian revolution as a whole. He represented the true values of dialogue, respecting and embracing others in rejecting violence. This is a political assassination.”
President Moncef Marzouki: The president cut short a visit to France and cancelled a trip to Egypt to deal with the crisis at home. From Strasbourg, he said: “There are political forces inside Tunisia that don’t want this transition to succeed. 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— [there] are the hundreds of thousands of people with many interests who see themselves threatened by this revolution.”
The Popular Front (PF): Chokri Belaid’s political coalition called for a nationwide strike on Thursday to protest the assassination.
The US Embassy in Tunisia: The embassy released a statement: “There is no justification for this heinous and cowardly act. Political violence has no place in the democratic transition in Tunisia. We urge the Tunisian government to conduct a fair, transparent, and professional investigation to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice consistent with Tunisian law and international norms.”
The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT): The country’s largest and most influential trade union called for a general strike on Friday.