Assassination casts pall on Arab Spring’s best hope

February 8, 2013

At a faster rate than many expected, the post-Arab Spring’s Islamist governments are stumbling.

For weeks, President Mohammad Mursi has faced increasingly violent opposition in Egypt. And now the Islamist rulers of Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, are facing growing unrest.

Across the country once considered the region’s best hope for democracy, mass protests and political paralysis have erupted following the assassination of a leading secular politician on Wednesday.

The anger and grief at Chokri Belaid’s death is real, according to this piece by my colleague Tarek Amara in Tunis. But it is also a reflection of the growing divide between secular Tunisians and the ruling Islamist party Ennahda.

Sixteen months after Ennahda swept elections and pledged to work with secularists, the two sides are increasingly divided. Ennahda said its supporters played no role in the assassination of Belaid as he walked out of his home and got into his car Wednesday morning. But many secular Tunisians say they believe Ennahda played a role in the murder, citing Belaid’s role as a staunch Ennahda critic.

Splits are even emerging in Ennahda itself. After the shooting, Tunisia’s Prime Minister, an Ennhada member, agreed to a long-standing demand from the secular opposition that a government of non-political technocrats be formed before elections expected to be held this spring or summer. A day later, the leader of Ennahda’s political party rejected the Prime Minister’s decision, creating more confusion.

“Political analysts said protracted deadlock could aggravate the unrest, which has underscored the chasm between Islamists,” Amara wrote, “and secular groups who fear that freedoms of expression, cultural liberty and women’s rights are in jeopardy just two years after the Western-backed dictatorship crumbled.”

The problem goes beyond politics, according to Tunisian journalists. The Ennahda-led government has failed to revive the economy or provide effective government services. The two sides have been unable to strike a compromise on the role of Islam in the country’s new constitution. And secularists say Ennahda has failed to crackdown on hardline Salafists who have carried out a series of violent attacks on liquor stores, art shows and secular Tunisians.

“They have never been held accountable and never been put in jail,” Zied Mhirsi, co-founder of the website Tunisia Live and a radio host, said in a telephone interview. “This all very worrisome to Tunisians.”

Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center, argued in the Washington Post Thursday that the problem was not Ennahda’s performance in Tunisia or the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Hamid, who was in Tunis, said polarization between the region’s secular and Islamist political groups was inevitable. He argued that what is occurring is not chaos, it is an epic power struggle.

“There is a fundamental ideological divide in the Arab world — let’s not pretend that it’s purely political,” he said. “There is a battle for the future of these countries and what they should look like.”

The stakes are enormous. Stay tuned.

 PHOTO: Soldiers help mourners carry the coffin of slain opposition leader Chokri Belaid during his funeral procession towards the nearby cemetery of El-Jellaz, where he is to be buried, in the Jebel Jelloud district of Tunis, February 8, 2013. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

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