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Arab Spring, Tunisia

Tunisia and the Revolution as a process

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The week ended with the news of the assassination of a prominent member of the opposition in Tunisia, Chokri Belaid. Born in 1964, Mr. Belaid studied law in Iraq and France before returning to Tunisia and opposing the former regime. In the aftermath of Ben Ali’s fall, he founded the Democratic Patriots’ Movement, a pan-Arab, leftist secular movement resolutely opposing Ennahda, the ruling party’s islamist agenda.

His funeral yesterday drew a large crowd (40,000 according to the Tunisian Interior Ministry) that quickly began chanting hostile slogans towards Ennahda and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi. A strike called by the leading historical labour union, the UGTT was widely followed. This is the first major crisis faced by Ennahda and its allies since they assumed power. Hamadi Jabali, the acting Prime Minister announced the reshuffling of the government with the objective of calling in apolitical, technocrat ministers in place of the nahdaouis. Jabali’s move, aimed at appeasing the street, seemed to be quickly denounced and criticized by his party. This appears to be the main question resulting from the current crisis: how will Ennahda react? Truth be told, for the last two years the party had to deal with various alerts ranging from salafi growing provocations and disturbances (with the torching of the American School last September as the main eruption) to the defiance of leftist and civil society activists on the occasion of the promotion of article 28 of the constitution regarding women’s “complementary” status. But this is the first time, that vast swaths of the Tunisian public opinion points an accusatory finger towards Ennahda and openly challenge the authority of the government. Poor economic performance, rising unemployment and security problems have plagued the country since the fall of Ben Ali and Tunisians begin to question the government’s ability to address their needs.

This could very well be Ennahda’s wake up call. The party has been repeatedly accused of laxism (and even collusion) regarding salafi extremists and of concealing a hidden agenda with the aim of establishing a theocratic state and destroying Tunisia’s secular legacy. Ennahda could use the crisis to crack down severely on extremist elements and show a true commitment towards moderation and national cohesion. This could entrench Ennahda’s consensual credentials and establish the party as a true governing force. But the initial response to Jabali’s call for reshuffling the government and most importantly the call for supporters to demonstrate on Saturday seems to point towards the fact that Ennahda (or at least some conservative elements around Ghannouchi) has chosen to confront the opposition and not to appease it.

This brings us to the second consequence of Chokri Belaid’s assassination. The Tunisian revolution might be entering into a second phase. Tunisians are showing the world their acute sense of political commitment despite decades of authoritarian rule. They expect any elected government to show a real pledge towards implementing the rule of law and fighting arbitrary and injustice. They won’t accept Belaid’s murder to remain unpunished. Moreover, the working class and the huge cohort of unemployed youth see this moment as an opportunity to shake the government from what they see as a deep slumber.

The process that started two years ago with the ousting of Ben Ali is far from finished. Like any other revolution throughout the ages, the Tunisian revolution is a continuing mutation. The French revolution started with the storming of the Bastille but kept on for a decade after that. Two years after the people of Paris rebelled, on June 21st of 1791, by fleeing to Varennes, Louis XVI precipitated the definitive end of the monarchy. On February 7th of 2013, a day after the murder of Chokri Belaid, Rachid Ghannouchi was boarding a plane for London…

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