On Thursday 25th July 2013 Mohammed Brahmi, a secular opposition figure, was gunned down outside his home in Tunis. The killing is reminiscent of the assassination of Chokri Belaid in February, another leading figure in Tunisia’s leftist opposition and an outspoken critic of the ruling party.
The assassination of Belaid in February sparked a political crisis leading to the resignation of the prime minister and a cabinet reshuffle. The assassination of Brahmi may have equally far-reaching repercussions, with tensions already running high as the country prepares to vote on a new constitution in the coming weeks.
The assassination of Brahmi was strikingly similar to that of Belaid five months ago. Both men were outspoken critics of the Islamist-led government and members of the broad, leftist coalition, the Popular Front (FP). Both were shot outside their homes by masked gunmen on a motorbike; some reports suggest they may even have been killed using the same gun. Both are now buried in Al-Jallaz cemetery, the country’s most famous resting place for nationalist and anti-colonial figures.
Responsibility for the murder remains unclear, and disputed. Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that dominated the 2011 elections and rules in coalition with two secular parties, blames both assassinations on radical Islamists who it also holds accountable for numerous acts of violence since 2011, including the attack on the US embassy in September 2012. Ansar al-Sharia, the hard-line Islamist group, denied any role in the killing. Relatives of Mr Brahmi believe Ennahda are to blame, either through direct involvement or because they have failed to reign in the rising tide of Salafi violence.
In the days following the assassination, there has already been sporadic violence in Tunis and Sidi Bouzid, the home town of Mohammed Brahmi and cradle of the country’s revolution. Large protests were dispersed by police using teargas, with demonstrators demanding the dissolution of the Islamist-led government. There have been calls to emulate Egypt and launch a rebellion “tamarrod” campaign against Ennahda.
Rival rallies were also present in Tunis in support of the Islamist-led government. The General Union of Tunisian Labour (UGTT) called for a nationwide strike and a day of mourning. The opposition has accused the government of failing to tackle Salafi violence, therefore being indirectly responsible for both assassinations – a charge that exacerbates the Islamist – secular liberal divide in Tunisian society.
The ouster of President Morsi sets a dangerous precedent and sends a clear message to Islamists throughout the Arab world, including Ennahda: Cement your authority now while in power; or worse, crush your opposition. Equally, Tunisia’s secular opposition will feel impelled to pursue their agenda on the streets and disrupt Ennahda’s rule, rather than through parliamentary process.
Like Egypt, Tunisian society is deeply divided over the kind of identity—Islamic, liberal, or pluralist—the country should forge following the overthrow of Ben Ali. The assassination of Brahmi has brought these fault lines in society to the fore. But, with many drawing comparisons with the crisis unfolding in Egypt, there are concerns that Tunisia could also be divided along similar lines; with the Islamists and their secular opponents holding rival rallies, with potentially violent clashes being inevitable.
Such fears are premature. Although Tunisian society is deeply polarised, it is unlikely to descend into a similar crisis as that unfolding in Egypt, for three reasons: Firstly, Tunisia’s transition has progressed further and more successfully; the interim coalition government is relatively stable and a constitution is almost ready for a referendum. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, thus far the Ennahda party presents a pragmatic outlook, blending moderate Islamic ideals with a commitment to democracy, as well as a willingness to co-operate with secular parties during Tunisia’s transition period.
Secondly, the military in Tunisia has historically been side-lined and does not have the level of economic interests or political influence as their counterparts in Egypt. Finally, although there have been countrywide protests of varying degrees, support for a rebellion along the same lines as Egypt remains limited.
It is more likely that the assassination of Brahmi, or a similar incident, could delay rather than derail the political transition, in turn delaying the more urgent task of tackling the country’s economic woes – a key trigger of the Arab Spring and still the main source of popular frustration. If protests were to delay the vote on the new constitution, it would be a major setback for the process of democratisation. The Ennahda-led government should remain steadfast in its determination to lead the country through this period of political turmoil, which, once dealt with, will allow the government to focus on the far greater problems facing the economy.