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The Tunisian Litmus Test Turns Red

Tunisia had been a relative bright spot among the emerging democracies of the Arab Spring, but an unprecedented political assassination has reintroduced turmoil on the streets of Tunis. Our Marc Herman interviews a Tunisian journalist on what it means for the land of the Jasmine Revolution.
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Tunisian protestors chant slogans behind barbed wire outside the Interior Ministry in Tunis, on February 7, 2013 during a demonstration against the killing of opposition figure and human rights lawyer Chokri Belaid. (Photo: KHALIL/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisian protestors chant slogans behind barbed wire outside the Interior Ministry in Tunis, on February 7, 2013 during a demonstration against the killing of opposition figure and human rights lawyer Chokri Belaid. (Photo: KHALIL/AFP/Getty Images)

Wednesday’s shooting of opposition politician Chokri Belaïd was the first assassination of a major political figure in Tunisia’s half-century modern history, according to Human Rights Watch. Unidentified gunmen approached Belaïd outside his home and shot him at point blank range, an act that appears calculated to threaten the progress of Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution,” the two year-old effort to establish a democracy in the small North Africa nation.

Tunisia has one of the region’s most peaceful political cultures. While follow-on revolts in the so-called Arab Spring countries, including Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, have gone badly and often descended into blood, Tunisia’s experience had been chaotic, but not tragic. Belaïd’s assassination shocked the country, sparking widespread protests and calls for Tunisia’s transitional government to resign. At least one more person, a police officer, has died in the unrest.

Chokri Belaïd (PHOTO: Rais67)


A little over a year ago, writing for Pacific Standard (then still titled Miller-McCune), I had an opportunity to travel to Tunisia and neighboring Libya as part of a story on democratic transitions. During the reporting of that story I met a young Tunisian freelance journalist and news producer, Radhouane Addala. Rad, as his friends call him, has been reporting from Tunis for the Los Angeles Times and others during this week’s unrest. Last night, I reached him on his cell phone as he returned from the demonstrations downtown, and he shared his thoughts on this latest, fraught chapter in the transition of the first Arab Spring nation from a dictatorship to a democracy.

The conversation has been condensed for space.

PACIFIC STANDARD: Where are you, exactly?

RAD ADDALA: I am now living in the southern suburbs of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.

And what's the general atmosphere there? Are people tense, or is this being taken as just another moment—a tough one—in the overall post-Ben Ali chronology?

It is really hard to get the general sense. Things are simply frustrating. People feel sort of lost within the set of events that are happening in a crazy fast short period. People try to be optimistic but there is always a new event that causes a big disappointment. People are tense because of the frustration. Things are unpredictable, and shocking sometimes.

And I imagine the violence of this specific setback has to give particular pause. It's one thing to lose a vote or see someone you don't like appointed to an office. It's another to see an assassination.

Guns, assassination, and political violence are words normal Tunisians never thought of hearing. It is hard to believe that Tunisia, a peaceful country, witnessed an assassination.

What happened is a turning point. Things went over the limit. Now it is not only disappointment, it is a frustration that is slowly moving to rage of not being able to make a difference. People forgave and forgot many bad steps, but an assassination is unforgivable.

A lot of the coverage in English has focused on Tunisia as the litmus test for the region, for the Arab Spring countries. Like if Tunisia can't get the transition right, who can? Is that fair?

The assassination woke up the nation to the truth: The revolution is not over yet. Many people forgot their essential role of monitoring the government. People now know that to ensure a peaceful transition, everybody needs to help, to push forward and to keep the pressure on the government and politicians.  People know that a country with a big percentage of educated, enthusiastic youth can make it peacefully to democracy.

Still, the narrative in the English language media seems to be about the danger of the power vacuum. The strongman fell, the opposition didn't get their house in order fast enough, and now radicals are taking over, is the foreign condensation of events. Is that a fair summary?

In complicated young democracies, the start is always the hardest part. The opposition made a really bad start, and took too long to get their house in order.

We can't deny the radicals’ threat, but they are far from taking over. The reality is, radicals are making noise, which takes them to front pages.

The country has been going through a situation where political violence has been tolerated and things reached a bloody phase.

What was Belaïd like?

He was the type of politician who melted into crowds. In the middle of protests, he would leave journalists’ interviews to interact with youth and hear them speak out. He respected everybody.

So why target him? Who benefits?

I would love to have that answer too. If you ask me, no one benefits from targeting him. He was just the first in a whole hit list.

Whose hit list?

Many figures received death threats. The head of the Tunisian Labor Party, Houcine Abassi, announced today that he received a text message telling him that he is on the list.

Is anyone taking credit for any of this?

No one is taking credit for it. No one knows who is sending the death threats.

How much sympathy can the people behind the shooting expect to get, in a country that doesn't generally support violence or extremism?

I am not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but the assassination was the dumbest action ever done.

Because it alienated the public?

Yes. Belaid was assassinated, but thousands of activists were born.

What do you think the average person in Tunisia wants from the parties, in the immediate time frame?

Most Tunisians are independents. Most Tunisians are not members of political parties. People want security, peaceful political conflict, and an independent, technocratic government, to ensure a quicker path to a future election.

Does that suggest that people could still get behind the current government? Hamadi Jabeli [the current prime minister of Tunisia] called for a technocratic government—pissing off his own party in the process. Or, will we see new elections?

Not quick elections. But, the constituent assembly [Tunisia’s parliament] has lost public trust. People do not trust the [members of parliament] any more. Many of the MPs are considered incompetent.

Is it fair to say part of the problem is that they've never done this before? That things like the shooting are as new to the legislators as they are to the public? Or are the people put in power after Ben Ali just not the best people for the job?

People feel many MPs didn’t deserve to be elected. [These were] people who had no law background; they don’t know the basic things about writing laws and rules. [The public] feels the assembly is costing the nation a fortune, in vain.

Why don't better people go into politics? Will it be harder to get people to go into politics now, after the shooting?

Better people tried to run as independents, and it was a terrible idea. People voted for parties and not for profiles. Many voters misunderstood the role of the assembly. They did not vote in a rational way. They were too emotional.

Lessons have been learned. Everybody is learning. Journalists, police, politicians, everybody.

As I said, the start is always super hard. Today is a nationwide general strike. And today is Belaïd’s funeral.