Tunisia's factions fight for control of fragile nation
Opposition leader's funeral heightens tensions
Published 10/02/2013 | 04:00
The striking grey-haired figure of Besma Khalifi Belaid standing among the mourners seemed to make a statement on its own: Tunisia is not like other Arab nations, even the newly changed nations of the Arab spring.
Her hair was immaculately styled and defiantly uncovered, her clothes, coat and even glasses fashionable, her expression assertive. As the chants washed over the thousands following the coffin of her husband, the opposition politician Shokri Belaid, she raised her fingers in a V-for-Victory sign.
Women have played forceful roles in the Arab world's revolutions, but they are rarely so visible as here – and, amid the stone-throwing teenagers, it is rare outside Tunisia for the spotlight to fall on a face so defiantly Western-looking.
Yet Mr Belaid's assassination last week seems to have shown that the different Tunisia is at worst a sham and at best under severe risk. Even Mr Belaid's family seem to have adopted the angry discourse that has overtaken the Arab world in recent months.
"We are sure that Ennahda did this," Mr Belaid's brother Abdel Majeed said of Tunisia's Islamist ruling party. "Did you see the funeral? That was our response. All Tunisians want the sweeping away of Ennahda, of the regime."
The hooded killer who shot Mr Belaid as he left for work on Wednesday was enacting a death foretold. Mr Belaid had warned of the growing violence among the radical fringes of the Islamist movement, including death threats against himself.
Among his main targets was a shadowy group called the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, initially set up to ensure the will of the protest movement that overthrew President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali was preserved. He accused it of being little more than a militia for Ennahda.
It talks of "cleansing" the media, and has broken up political rallies, including one by Mr Belaid's own Democratic Patriotic party.
This is not what Tunisia's friends in the West, disillusioned with the corruption of the Ben Ali years, hoped for when they watched him fall. Tunisia's prosperity, its closeness to Europe both geographically and politically, and the "moderateness" of Ennahda were supposed to ensure an easier transition to multi-party democracy.
To some extent that has happened, an achievement that last week's events should not obscure. A wide range of views, Islamist, liberal and left-wing, are represented in parliament, and Ennahda's prime minister Hemadi Jebali governs in coalition with two centre-left parties.
But the optimism obscured an important but obvious fact: as a Muslim country closely tied into the Arab world, the strength of the secular and pro-western elements make it more, not less, divided.
In Egypt, few dispute the central place of Islam in the country's society or politics. In Tunisia, on the other hand, the broad Islamist movement, from Ennahda to the militant Salafists, is fighting for a country that many still like to see as almost French in its divorce of religion and state.
Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and now the country's most powerful man although he has taken no formal role in government, condemned the artists, saying "acts against religion had to be criminalised".
After the killing of the American ambassador in Libya last September, the reaction in Tunisia was the reverse of shocked silence – a huge crowd attacked and stormed the embassy in Tunis.
Again, while condemning the attacks, Ennahda seemed to condone the spirit behind it.
In a final insult, a video was leaked to the internet which showed Mr Ghannouchi in apparently jovial conversation with Salafi leaders. While he is heard urging them to calm their calls for Sharia, he presents this as a matter of tactics, not principle.
It is perhaps not surprising that, so emboldened, an increasing number of radical young Tunisians are not just pushing for change at home but heading abroad to join jihadist groups fighting in Syria. The problem for secular politicians like Mr Belaid is how to fight back.
"We are an Islamic state, a democratic Islamist state," said Abdelaziz Ben Salah, who identified himself as a member of Ansar al-Sharia.
Another government supporter, Fawzi Ourad, insisted that Islamists could not have been responsible for Mr Belaid's death. "It was people from outside who did this," he said. "Islam is a religion of peace."
Few Tunisians would disagree with his last statement. But that does not make them any more confident that the role Islam is to play in their society will be settled without more violence.