Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Jasmine Revolution to martyrdom

In the wake of the assassination of political activist Shokri Belaid, Tunisia faces its toughest test yet, asserts Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, no hardline helmsman, has raised the spectre of a battle against religious bigotry, intolerance and terrorism in Tunisia after the assassination last Wednesday of Tunisia’s leftist leader Shokri Belaid. Marzouki holds office at a time of exceptional partisanship and ideological polarisation in the Tunisian political arena.

Marzouki understands that Belaid has long aroused deep animosity on the right, both in the now-defunct state security apparatus of former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali and in the militant Islamist right in the country.

The verdict delivered by the Tunisian electorate in the aftermath of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution brought moderate Islamists to power, but Shokri’s assassination has raised questions about the presumed “moderation” of the country’s ruling Al-Nahda Party, even though it has denied any involvement.

However, Shokri’s family have openly accused Al-Nahda and its leader Rachid Al-Ghannoushi of being implicated in the gruesome assassination of one of Tunisia’s most promising leaders.

Belaid was the leader of the Popular Front bloc, a coalition of leftist and progressive Tunisian parties. A lawyer by training, he had long struggled to advance workers’ rights in Tunisia. He put people before profits. A genial and amicable personality, The tragic truth was that Belaid was not loved or appreciated enough across the Tunisian political spectrum.

There were those who saw him and his party as a ruse intent on ruining the Islamist project in Tunisia. The Salafis in particular, and certain strands of the mainstream Islamist Al-Nahda Party, saw Belaid’s secularist and socialist ideology as a subterfuge designed to undermine their strategy for the country’s Islamisation.

In short, he stood in their way, and they had cause to get rid of him. Tunisians of all political persuasions have learned the creed of the militant Islamists, and Belaid’s arguments that circumstances existed in Tunisia that had political significance far beyond the pros and cons of political Islam enraged the militant Islamists.

Belaid was part of the defence team of former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein during his trial for crimes against humanity. His anti-Western stance earned him the enmity of many inside Tunisia and abroad. Even so, United States state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland described Belaid’s assassination as an “outrageous and cowardly act.”

Be that as it may: there are those who suspect that the West is now shedding crocodile tears over Belaid. Yet, in his own country he knew that he must calibrate a policy that championed women’s rights, provide jobs for the restless, politically disfranchised and peripheralised youth, and ensure freedom of expression and political association.

Leftists in Tunisia have taken a stand against violence and terrorism in the aftermath of the assassination of Belaid. “We must demonstrate to the world that our nation is united against terrorism,” Hamma Hammami, spokesman of the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party and the second man after Belaid in the Popular Front bloc, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Belaid was also a passionate poet, and, in an ironic twist of fate, one of his last poems was dedicated to the Lebanese intellectual and Marxist philosopher Hussein Mroueh, assassinated by militant Islamists on 17 February, 1987.

For years, Belaid was an opposition leader and the national coordinator of the leftist and secularist Democratic Patriots Movement in Tunisia, part of the 12-member umbrella organisation named the Popular Front. As a vocal critic of Bin Ali, Belaid understood that the political transition in Tunisia necessitated a strong opposition capable of presenting a viable ideological alternative during the shift to multi-party democracy.

Yet, the dire condition of the Tunisian economy, along with the astronomically high unemployment rate, incensed Tunisians, many of whom were therefore willing to cut Al-Nahda and the Islamists in general some slack because of the mess the country’s new rulers had inherited from Bin Ali.

Again, Belaid reasoned that only a national project of socialism could realistically meet the practical needs and aspirations of the Tunisian youth who had spearheaded the country’s Jasmine Revolution.

The street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose suicide sparked the Jasmine Revolution, symbolised the frustration of Tunisia’s jobless youth. Yet, it is not surprising that many Tunisian youth nevertheless eschewed the progressive path of Marxist-inspired Marzouki and Belaid for the reactionary path of Islamist militancy.

Even in less gridlocked times, the challenges presented by political Islam in Tunisia still intrude. Marzouki cut short an official visit to Cairo to attend the Organisation of Islamic Conference Summit recently, though no Tunisian militant Islamist militia has emerged to rival Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which launched the civil war that ravaged Tunisia’s neighbour in the 1990s and that cost the lives of 250,000 Algerians.

This all runs counter to the received wisdom. The omens bode ill for Tunisia. Marzouki has pleaded the case for sensible governance, but many leftist Tunisians believe he is in cahoots with Al-Nahda, even though the Tunisian president has long been regarded as a leftist.

Hundreds of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to mourn Belaid, not all of them Marxists or even secularist Leftists or members of the Popular Front. They demanded a transparent and professional investigation of the killing — after all, was not Marzouki himself the onetime president of the Arab Commission for Human Rights?

With each month of the coalition’s, or troika’s, governing arrangement in Tunisia, the costs of the country’s dysfunction is becoming increasingly visible. Belaid did not wish to see Tunisia become North Africa’s Tora Bora as a result of the Jasmine Revolution, but the country’s militant and ultraconservative Salafis have been reluctant to give ground to the secularist forces and in particular to the left and “Godless Communists” whom they consider to be infidels.

Shouldn’t the recalcitrant mindset of the militant Islamists in Tunisia and elsewhere give pause, when parties of secularist and leftist political persuasions cosy up to them? Hammami insists that there must be no compromise with militant Islamists who have resorted to attacking women and artists, media workers and leftist activists in a systematic strategy to impose their Islamist ideology on all Tunisians.

In the bitter aftermath of Belaid’s assassination, Al-Nahda must declare to the world, and not only to Tunisians, that it follows clear rules — the stipulations of Islamic moderation held by the Maliki School of Jurisprudence of Sunni Islam that are prevalent in Tunisia and much of North Africa.

Belaid understood that the underlying cause of the Tunisian political predicament was economic and not ideological. So what more can be done?

The answer is providing jobs for the jobless and social amenities for the poorest of the poor. These were the ideals and principles that Belaid lived for. They are the key to a better-balanced Tunisian economy, which Belaid wanted to see take the profits from tourism away from the corporate oligarchy nurtured under Bin Ali and from his hangers-on and henchmen.

Such a socialist approach to Tunisia’s economic woes would have defined goals, as Belaid stressed, making the effectiveness of socialist policies measurable. But will the Islamists, who espouse free enterprise, consent? Will it be more palatable politically for Al-Nahda bigwigs and the newly emerging clique of Islamist financiers and businessmen, aided and abetted by the wealthy Gulf countries, to forgo juicy contracts?

All that stands in their way is continued dysfunction. Many Tunisians believe that theirs is a case for adopting Belaid’s approach to resolving the country’s perennial political problems, which stem from social and economic injustice.

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, a leading member of Al-Nahda, promptly dissolved the government and formed a government of “national unity” in the wake of the assassination, bringing together technocrats irrespective of political affiliation and ideological persuasion.

Tunisians, however, are uncertain that such a project is feasible, though the majority appears to be committed to getting the politics right if there is to be hope of instituting a viable democracy and effecting sustainable peace.

Al-Nahda, in particular, must now demonstrate a willingness to bring the perpetrators of violence, assassinations and incitement to violence to book.

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