Chokri Belaid, Tunisian Politician and Activist, Murdered, Splitting a Country in Two

Chokri Belaid. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chokri Belaid. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Protests have broken out across Tunisia in response to the murder of Chokri Belaid, the left-wing human rights activist and head of the Democratic Patriots Movement. Belaid, 48, was gunned down outside of his home on Wednesday, February 6.

A lawyer and opponent of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, Belaid was a champion of a liberal, secular Tunisia. His murder has sparked a series of reactions that demonstrate the political and religious tensions in the North African country.

Since Wednesday, thousands of Belaid’s supporters – supporters of a secular Tunisia – have been protesting across the country. The largest gathering, some 50,000 strong, lined the streets of Tunis at Belaid’s funeral. Many supporters have accused the ruling Ennahda party of involvement in the murder.

Pro-Islamist demonstrations have also broken out. On Saturday February 9, the main avenue in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, was the site of an enormous demonstration. The street, home to the French embassy, saw some 3,000 protestors gather, led by Ennahda, the Islamic political party currently in power.

The protest is also in reaction to the recent announcement of the French Interior Minister, Manuel Valls. In the evening of Thursday, February 7 Valls, speaking on French radio, denounced “a fascistic, Islamic movement growing everywhere” in Tunisia and Egypt.

This reproach is aimed at the Ennahda party and their link with the so-called Salafists, extremist Islamists who have been the cause of violent outbreaks in Tunisia over the passed several months, including the attack on the American Embassy in September of 2012.

Valls urged listeners to “ stay hopeful for the next governmental election,” referring to the Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s promise for a new composition of ministers in the Assembly, which, since the first post-2011 Tunisian revolution elections in October of the same year, has been composed mostly of ministers from Ennahda.

In the same speech, the French Minister of Interior argued, “this is an important issue Tunisia is faced with, not only for the country itself but also for the whole of the Mediterranean region, including, notably, France.”

These declarations have put further strain on French relations with their former colony. In the wake of the Tunisian Revolution – the first upheaval of the Arab Spring in February 2011 – the ex-French Foreign Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, was pushed to resignation due to suspicions of corrupt relations with the ex-Tunisian autocratic President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose regime was toppled January 14, 2011.

The Tunisian Foreign Minister, Rafik Abdessalem, referred to Valls’ declarations as “unfriendly and damaging to the bilateral relations between the two nations.” On Friday, the Tunisian Prime Minister called upon the French Ambassador to condemn Valls’ statements. Furthermore, all French schools have been closed since Friday until further notice for fear of outbursts of violence, and the particular disdain Tunisians are expressing towards France.

The Tunisian, pro-Islamist population has been vocal in condemning Valls’ statement, producing historically charged slogans such as “France get out, Tunisia will never again be a colonized land.” A number of posts on Twitter have displayed anti-French sentiments written out on large placards. One in particular reads, “Filthy Hollande, take care of your own French nation and your gay marriage rights!”

Meanwhile on Saturday, demonstrations of solidarity are being held in Marseilles and Toulouse, paying tribute to the murdered opposition leader Belaid. 200 people in Marseilles and 150 in Toulouse have been out waving posters reading, “fight for a secular Tunisia,” “we all have a Chokri Belaid within us,” and “we are mourning Tunisia.” While marching in the streets, people have chanted, “Say no to fundamentalism” and “Tunisians on your feet, no kneeling down!”

Belaid was a fervent critic of the Ben Ali regime prior to January 2011, and a strong militant against the current Islamist government. Head of the far-left Democratic Patriots Movement (Al Watada), his party was first established in 1981 and legalized in 2011. It primarily advocates a parliamentary system, developing the peasantry and manufacturing industries, and campaigning against the exploitation of the working class in Tunisia.

The movement was part of 12 member groups of the umbrella party Popular Front. The organization is strongly opposed to the Salafists, fundamental Islamists, who have been present in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution.

The assassination of Chokri Belaid has triggered even more tension within an already unstable government. Prior to Belaid’s death, Jebali’s coalition government had been accused of ineffectiveness and consisting of a majority of Ennahda ministers disliked by the secular and democratic parties. Reacting to the hostility against the Ennahda party after Belaid’s murder, Jebali promised on February 6 the dissolution of the current coalition government and the creation of a technocratic government.

However, Jebali – a ‘moderate’ Islamist – made this announcement without consulting the rest of his party, who do not entirely support a technocratic coalition. As a result, the spokesman of the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, claimed he had no knowledge of this change in government, declaring, “either M. Jebali gives up his position as Prime Minister, or his party leaves the government.”

For the time being, the state of the Tunisian government is left shrouded in uncertainty. Hamma Hammami, head of the radical left-wing Popular Front, declared, “One thing is certain: Tunisia needs a new government and a new Prime Minister.” Hammami has also said that the secular Popular Front would be pulling out of the constituent assembly due to Belaid’s assassination.

On Friday February 8, 24 hours before the anti-French protests that took place in the center of Tunis, 50,000 Tunisians rallied in the street to join in Belaid’s ceremonial funeral, crying out slogans hostile to the Islamist factions ruling the country. Singing the national anthem, many were heard crying out, “We want a new revolution!”

As for the French implications amidst this political turmoil, France 24 –a popular French news channel–conducted an interview on the same day with Mawaheb Mosbah, a Tunisian woman living in France.

Presenting herself as a spokeswoman for Belaid, Mosbah made “a last call for France who is supporting Mali in their fight for democracy, in their fight against the Islamists in Mali, it may be time to take a look at what is going in Tunisia. The same Islamists, the same Jihadists, the same Salafists who are in Mali are also feeding off Tunisia.” These words of a Tunisian woman highlight the anger that triggered the anti-French protests Saturday.

Comments

  1. Maziar Fayaz-Torshizi says:

    Nice article! It would be interesting to see how the liberals could gain from this in Tunisia, even though it is the right-islamists who are to remain in power now (with or without force but definitely with external support).

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  1. […] was called as a witness in front of the judge in charge of the investigation into the February assassination of opposition activist Chokri Belaïd. On March 5, the new Prime Minister Ali Larayedh announced that the alleged suspect […]

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