Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Who killed Al-Brahmi and Belaid?

In the aftermath of the killing of Tunisian activist Mohamed Al-Brahmi, the ruling Islamist Al-Nahda Party has been accused of being behind the killing against the backdrop of rumours of a possible coup, writes Lassaad Ben Ahmed

Al-Ahram Weekly

In Tunisia, 25 July marks the anniversary of the abolition of the monarchy and the declaration of the first republic in 1957. Normally, it is a day for patriotic celebration and pride. However, this year the commemoration was overshadowed by bloodshed and grave fears over the country’s future.

On the morning of 25 July this year, opposition leader and MP in the country’s Constituent Assembly Mohamed Al-Brahmi was gunned down as he was leaving his home on his way to the centre of Tunis to participate in the Republican Day ceremonies. It was midday when he emerged from his house in the Ghazala neighbourhood in the north of the capital. Two men on a motorcycle raced up and unleashed a full cartridge of 9mm bullets from an automated weapon into their target.

The news of Al-Brahmi’s assassination sparked nationwide outrage. Large crowds of angry demonstrators poured into Habib Bourguiba Avenue, converged on the Interior Ministry building, and amassed in central locations elsewhere in the country to demand the resignation of the current government, the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, and the resignation of the president and prime minister.

The anger was directed against the Islamist Al-Nahda Party, one of the parties making up Tunisia’s ruling troika coalition government. The demonstrators charged that Al-Nahda and to a lesser extent its allies in power had been responsible for the second political assassination to take place in the country since the revolution that succeeded in ousting the government of former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali in January 2011.

Less than six months ago on 6 February, the opposition activist Chokri Belaid was killed in a similar attack.

Those who believe that Al-Nahda was behind Al-Brahmi’s assassination have pointed to a speech by Sobhi Atik, leader of the Al-Nahda bloc in the Constituent Assembly, during a rally in support of the pro-Morsi forces in Egypt in which he vowed that “anyone who takes out a license against legitimacy will meet with a licence to have his blood shed on the streets of Tunisia.”

The Al-Nahda leader’s pronouncement triggered outcry at the time among Tunisian political forces, many of which called for Atik’s resignation from the Assembly. Today, a large segment of Tunisian public opinion holds that Al-Brahmi’s assassination was a fulfilment of Atik’s vow, as Al-Brahmi had been an outspoken critic of “legitimacy” and a supporter of the Tunisian Tamarod Movement that was inaugurated in June.

Responding to the accusations, Atik said that the assassination had been part of a conspiracy, insisting that his remarks had been misinterpreted and that he had never called for political violence and bloodshed. Rather, he said, he had meant that the Tunisian people would defend their revolution even if blood had to be shed.

Born in 1955 in the governorate of Sidi Bouzeid, the cradle of the Tunisian Revolution, Mohammed Al-Brahmi obtained an MA in accounting in 1982, after which he began teaching economy and management at the Menzel Bourguiba Technical School. His political career began during his university years when he was among the advocates of the Arab nationalist movement and a member of the Defiant Progressives Student Movement.

In 2005, Al-Brahmi co-founded the Nasserist Unionist Movement, which was banned under the Bin Ali regime. On 23 October 2011, he ran in the Constituent Assembly elections as a representative of the People’s Movement, which he had founded after the Revolution, and won a seat in the Assembly. Following the events of 9 April 2012, he announced that the Movement would merge with the Popular Front.

He withdrew from the front just over a month ago due to what he called essential ideological differences with the other leaders and founded the Popular Current instead. Two days before he was assassinated, Al-Brahmi declared that the revolution must continue even if there had to be changes in direction. In contrast to many of his communist-oriented colleagues in the Popular Front, Al-Brahmi was also a devout Muslim who had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca more than once.

Following his assassination, the public gaze homed in on the country’s ruling elites, who, at the very least, have been regarded as failing to ensure the security of all Tunisians and of prominent political opposition members in particular.

Most analyses of the events have supported this assessment, but perhaps the most logical theory, propounded by some Tunisian political parties as well as some governments abroad, is that the assassination was actually targeting the political transition process itself in Tunisia.

This process, analysts argue, is now very close to attaining its designated aims. The Constituent Assembly has finished general discussions of the new draft constitution, it is about to complete the creation of an independent commission to organise the elections, and it is making preparations for public discussion of the draft constitution before it is put to a referendum in August.

Accordingly, most analysts believe that Al-Brahmi’s assassination was meant to deliver a debilitating blow to this process and to propel Tunisia into a maelstrom of violence in the manner of the Egyptian scenario in which people have been divided into the supporters and opponents of legitimacy.

Suspense over who carried out the attack on Al-Brahmi did not last long, however. On Friday, the minister of the interior announced that ballistics analysis had shown that the bullet that killed Al-Brahmi was fired from the same gun that was used to kill Chokri Belaid. The minister then revealed the identity of the alleged assailant — Boubakr Al-Hakim, 30, a member of a jihadist takfiri group who was involved in the smuggling of arms into Tunisia and their transport inside the country.

The minister said that the suspect had been put under surveillance and that he had almost been apprehended during a raid on his home in the Ghazala neighbourhood of Tunis last week. Although Al-Hakim had managed to escape, the police had unearthed a large cache of ammunition, automated weapons and explosives in his home, the minister said.

According to other sources on social-networking Internet sites, Al-Hakim is a French national who was born in Paris and who has fought with jihadist militias in Syria and Iraq. In 2005, he was arrested, extradited to France and prosecuted on the charge of facilitating the travel of militant youth to fight in the jihad. His brother is said to have been killed during the fighting in Fallujah in Iraq in 2007.

However, the Tunisian opposition remains unconvinced, and it continues to press the demands it has voiced since the assassination of Belaid for a comprehensive investigation leading to the identification of the party or parties behind Belaid’s and now Al-Brahmi’s assassination.

In spite of the intense heat during the fasting taking place during the holy month of Ramadan, thousands of Tunisians took part in the funeral ceremonies for the late political activist on Saturday. A large contingent from the army was on hand to protect the funeral procession, from which the parties that form the current ruling troika coalition government were absent out of respect to the family’s request that no representatives of these parties attend.

Since then, Tunisia has remained in a state of unrest. Protests continue, the powerful General Union of Tunisian Labour has declared a general strike, and more than 50 MPs have withdrawn from the Constituent Assembly, all of which signals that Tunisia now stands on an ominous threshold.


An attempted coup?


The assassination of the popular opposition figure Mohamed Al-Brahmi last Thursday in Tunis coincided with a number of events that support the notion of a carefully devised scheme carried out to serve a devious political agenda.

Leaving aside the situation in Egypt following the dismissal of ousted former president Mohamed Morsi and the train of assassinations in Benghazi in Libya, the series of events in Tunisia suggests the presence of a force, perhaps foreign, bent on ending the rule of political Islam in the country.

Analysts have pointed to what they believe are related developments. Foremost among these was the launching two months ago of the Tunisian Tamarod (Rebel) Movement calling for an end to the rule of the country’s troika coalition government and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly.

Earlier in the same week in which Al-Brahmi was assassinated, it was learned that some Tamarod organisers, most prominently the Movement’s coordinator Mohamed Bannour, were connected with some of the opposition parties. The discovery precipitated disputes that eventually led to Bannour’s dismissal, although the Movement has so far succeeded in collecting over a million signatories on its petition.

Just two days before Al-Brahmi’s assassination, the Tunisian minister of the interior announced that new evidence had arisen pertaining to the assassination of Chokri Belaid six months ago. The minister said that he would reveal this evidence to the public within the next few days.

The analysts also observe that the assassination occurred just after a number of representatives in the Constituent Assembly had announced their intention to resign because they were certain that they had lost the constitutional drafting battle that is now entering the final phase of discussion.

Opposition MPs openly admitted this failure, but they justified their stance on the grounds of the failure of the assembly to reach consensus over a number of controversial issues that had been raised again, even though they had been agreed upon during the national dialogue between the various political parties.

The opposition deputies, numbering 60 on Monday, froze their membership in the assembly immediately after Al-Brahmi’s funeral on Saturday. They then led a huge demonstration, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, that converged on the Constituent Assembly building in the Bardo district of western Tunis where protesters called for the end of Islamist rule.

They also called for the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and branded Rached Al-Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s ruling Al-Nahda Party, a member of the troika government, “the butcher”.

Hamma Al-Hamami of the Popular Front, Khamis Qasila of the Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) Party, Samir Beltayeb of the Democratic bloc and other prominent political leaders stood for several hours beneath the scorching sun until police forcefully dispersed the protesters because they had been demonstrating without a permit.

The following day, the protesters reassembled. But this time the opposition were not alone, as supporters of “legitimacy” staged a parallel demonstration in support of their representatives in the Constituent Assembly and the government.

Both camps had obtained permits from the Ministry of the Interior. However, in view of the large size of the demonstrations and their proximity, the ministry announced that it could not guarantee the safety of the protesters. Military forces were brought in to cordon off the areas with barbed wire and to force the demonstrators to leave.

With or without the demonstrations, however, tensions have remained extremely high since the assassination of Al-Brahmi. On the morning of the same Sunday, interim president Moncef Al-Marzouki met with army commanders to discuss the measures that needed to be taken, though the substance of the meeting was not disclosed to the public.

On Saturday, the General Union of Tunisian Labour (UGTT) declared a general strike and called for an emergency meeting of its board to discuss the situation with an eye to issuing a decision regarding future cooperation between the powerful labour organisation and the current government. In the meantime, the UGTT froze all talks with the government.

At the same time, the country’s political party leaderships have been holding meetings to formulate their positions. Perhaps the most important was the meeting held by the executive bureau of the Al-Takkatol Party, after which its spokesman announced that the Party would withdraw from the government coalition unless the cabinet were dissolved and replaced by a national-unity cabinet.

Amidst the rush of events that seem to bring a new development with every passing hour, Tunisians are asking dozens of questions, among them who was responsible for the assassination of Al-Brahmi and, earlier, Belaid and what will happen should the Constituent Assembly be dissolved.

Although the minister of interior has revealed the identity and ideological affiliation of the prime suspect in both killings, some analysts remain convinced that there is a link between these assassinations and developments in Egypt and Libya and that some foreign agency has designs to foment chaos and violence in the countries of the Arab Spring.

Unconfirmed reports circulating on social-networking websites have suggested that French intelligence had a hand in Al-Brahmi’s assassination. Sobhi Atik, an Al-Nahda representative in the Constituent Assembly, went on air on a privately owned radio station to denounce what he called an “attempted coup”.

After this, Hamma Al-Hamami and Bachir bin Hussein were summoned before the country’s public prosecutor to respond to allegations circulating in the press that they had been in contact with military commanders in an attempt to persuade them to overthrow the government.

Perhaps the coming days will furnish clearer answers about such rumours, though most analysts believe that such an action would not be beyond Al-Hamami, the official spokesman for the Popular Front and head of the Labour Party.

In March, Al-Hamami was reported to have boasted of his success in bringing down the troika’s first government, headed by Hamadi Al-Jibali, and he has since pledged to bring down the current government by using workers’ strikes and sit-ins. This might also help explain the escalatory approach of the UGTT, as evidenced by its decision to declare a general strike the day after Al-Brahmi’s assassination. 

According to analysts, just over a week before Al-Brahmi’s assassination, Al-Hamami engaged in talks with the aim of forming a national salvation government. He was supported in this by Nidaa Tounes and other opposition parties, though in the opinion of experts in constitutional law this course could only lead to a dead end.

“Legal legitimacy is still with the Constituent Assembly in spite of the withdrawal of a significant number of its members,” said constitutional law professor Kais Said.

“The legitimacy [of the Constituent Assembly] can only end by a decision, taken by this assembly itself, to dissolve itself from within if it concludes that it has failed in its task. At that point, it would determine to which agency it would hand the reins of authority for the administration of the interim phase,” he said.

However, the crisis has yet to reach this stage. The bylaws governing the assembly include no provisions that address the possibility of a member or group of MPs freezing their membership. According to Said, these bylaws make provisions for other eventualities such as resignation or dismissal, in which case vacancies are filled through nominations for successors in the polls.

With respect to the 60 members who have frozen their membership in the assembly, it was announced on Monday that the assembly would continue its activities regardless.

However, the real test resides in whether the Tunisian people can continue on the path to transition and arrive safely on the threshold of the forthcoming elections.

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