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Tunisia's growing ideological divide

In the absence of a strongman, will Tunisia's Islamist government and secular opposition find a detente?
Last modified: 7 Feb 2013 21:42

The assassination of a prominent opposition leader in Tunisia is likely to haunt the political elite for the months to come. But why is the killing of a man who ran a small political party is shaping the post revolution narrative?

Shokri Belaid was the leader of the Democratic nationalists, a leftist party staunchly opposed to the ruling Ennahda party, which he had always accused of trying to undermine the secular fundamentals of the republic.

Belaid was instrumental in rallying the left under a new umbrella, the Popular Movement, hoping to build a strong block to stem the spectacular rise of conservative movements in his country.

He was quite aware of the fact that Ennahda will rule Tunisia unchallenged for many years to come, unless someone else came up with an attractive vision for the future of Tunisia.

I met with Belaid’s people many times and what struck me most was their strong belief that the Arab Spring was a western invention to spread chaos in the region, that the Americans are colluding with the Islamists to destroy Arab nationalism, and that free market policies is but a  gimmick to embezzle the state and impoverish people.  

In Belaid they found a powerful voice for the poor, the unemployed and perhaps an alternative to the rising stars of Tunisian politics, the Islamists. But unidentified gunmen, approached him as he was leaving his house and shot him at close range.

His death triggered widespread anger and  has rallied the seculars against the Islamists, a polarisation many fear might drag the country into an unbreakable political impasse.

Belaid has now become an icon, a martyr a man who wanted the post-Zine El Abidine Ben Ali Tunisia to become more democratic and more secular. The latter may depend on whether Tunisians will stay vote in majority for Ennahda or not in the future.

The party is uncontestedly the largest grassroots organization in Tunisia,  built on  discipline and unwavering loyalty.

But there is something wrong with the transitional period. Discontent is on the rise, the youth who risked their lives for change feel increasingly betrayed by the political order.

A taxi driver told me on the way to a poor Tunis neighbourhood "Ben Ali for all his crimes, was a very strong man. What we have now is many leaders fighting for more powers", a sentiment not shared across the board but tells a lot about broken dreams of a vibrant prosperous democracy in Tunisia.