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A Murder Deepens Tunisia's Political Crisis

Feb 13, 2013
Originally published on February 13, 2013 6:24 am

The political crisis in Tunisia is deepening after last week's murder of a prominent secular politician. Tunisians are increasingly divided over their country's government and future, just two years after collectively overthrowing the dictator in a popular revolution.

The murder of outspoken politician Chokri Belaid shocked Tunisians to their core. Tens of thousands of people turned out to bury him Friday in the main cemetery in Tunis, the capital. The much beloved politician and human rights lawyer was well-known for defending the poor and even Islamists jailed under the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Secular Tunisians believe extremists killed Belaid, and some say that the moderate Islamist government bears some responsibility for his death because it didn't crack down on the extremists.

As Belaid was laid to rest, mourners began singing the national anthem and called for a second revolution to throw out the Islamist government.

But summing up the country's problems in terms of secularists vs. Islamists is too simplistic, says Monica Marks, who is writing her Oxford University doctoral thesis on Tunisia. Marks says such an analysis misses many other important issues.

"One big problem that Chokri Belaid's murder highlighted was the weak security sector in Tunisia. We need forensics, we need clear investigations, we need rule of law," Marks says. "And all of those things are very difficult to implement in a country that was dominated by the old informant system, the old Mukhabarat system, the secret police."

Marks says the Islamist government has the unenviable task of fixing security, the economy and everything else after 50 years of dictatorship, and under the current climate of instability.

Fear The Revolution Is Being Stolen

Over the weekend, the opposite camp took to the streets — mostly religious supporters of the government. People like Habibi Aouili, who also condemns Belaid's murder, but says the democratically elected government is in no way responsible.

"We cannot solve [Tunisia's problems] in one day or one year," Aouili says. "We believe that the Tunisian people and this government [are] honest. They're going in the [direction of] real democracy."

Protesters are also angry at France, the country's former colonial ruler. They chanted, "French out," in response to a French minister's warning that Islamist fascism could be on the rise in Tunisia.

Some protesters also accused Belaid's killers, whoever they were, of trying to pit Tunisians against each other. True or not, it seems to be working.

Marks says Tunisians of all stripes are frightened that their revolution is being stolen.

"This is a revolution that people care for strongly. It's their revolution. It is a Tunisian revolution. It's not a revolution of the Islamists or the secularists, or rich people or poor people, or young people or old people. It's everyone's revolution," Marks says. "So the biggest fear, more than anything, is going back to the old regime — or having any one group dominate this revolution."

Some demonstrators say the problem is not the people but the political class. Politicians, they say, need to put their own interests aside and focus on what's best for the country.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The political crisis in Tunisia is deepening after the murder of a prominent secular politician last week. Tunisians are increasingly divided over their country's government and future, just two years after collectively overthrowing a dictator in a popular revolution.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is following events in the capital, Tunis, and sent this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The murder of outspoken politician Chokri Belaid shocked Tunisians to their core. Tens of thousands of people turned out to bury him Friday in Tunis' main cemetery. The much-beloved human rights lawyer was well-known for defending the poor and even Islamists jailed under the regime of dictator Ben Ali. But secular Tunisians say the moderate Islamist government had a hand in Belaid's death, because it didn't crack down on the extremists who they say killed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

BEARDSLEY: As Belaid was laid to rest, mourners broke into the national anthem and called for a second revolution to throw out the Islamist government.

Being here, one has the sense that secular Tunisia will prevail over religious Tunisia. But summing up the country's problems in terms of secularists-versus-Islamists is too simplistic, says Monica Marks, who's writing her Oxford University doctoral thesis on Tunisia. Marks says such an analysis misses many other important issues.

MONICA MARKS: One big problem that Chokri Belaid's murder highlighted was the weak security sector in Tunisia. We need forensics. We need clear investigations. We need rule of law. And all of those things are very difficult to implement in a country that was dominated by the old informant system, the old Mukhabarat system - the secret police.

BEARDSLEY: Marks says the Islamist-led government has the unenviable task of fixing security, the economy and everything else after 50 years of dictatorship and under the current climate of instability.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

BEARDSLEY: Over the weekend, the Islamist supporters of the government took to the streets. People here, like Habibi Aouili, also condemn Belaid's murder, but they say the democratically elected government is in no way responsible.

HABIBI AOUILI: We need time. This is the difficulty of dictator of 50 years ago. So we cannot solve in one day or one year. We believe that Tunisian people and this government honest. They are going to the real democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

BEARDSLEY: Protesters are also angry at former colonial ruler France. They chanted, French out, in response to a French minister's warning that Islamist fascism could be on the rise in Tunisia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: France is against our democratic choice, because France is against Muslims in general, says this man.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Protesters also accused the killers, whoever they are, of trying to pit Tunisians against each other. True or not, it seems to be working.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Vive la Tunisie. Vive la Tunisie.

BEARDSLEY: Long live Tunisia, yells one frustrated demonstrator.

Monica Marks says Tunisians of all colors are frightened that their revolution is being stolen.

MARKS: This is a revolution that people care for strongly. It's their revolution. It is a Tunisian revolution. It's not a revolution of the Islamists or the secularists, or rich people or poor people or young people or old people. It's everyone's revolution. So the biggest fear, more than anything, is going back to the old regime, or having any one group, dominate this revolution.

BEARDSLEY: Some demonstrators say the problem is not the people, but the political class. Politicians, they say, need to put their own interests aside and focus on what's best for the country.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.