Gwynne Dyer: Chokri Belaid murder mystery in Tunisia

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      When somebody is murdered and his killer is unknown, the detective’s first step is to ask: who had a motive? In classic murder-mystery novels and films, the usual answer was: almost everybody. That’s the only way to keep the plot going for 250 pages or 90 minutes. But in real life, the suspects are generally few, and pretty obvious. So who killed Chokri Belaid?

      The Tunisian human rights lawyer and political leader was assassinated outside his home as he left for work on February 6, and the country immediately erupted in violent antigovernment demonstrations. His wife Basma said she would file murder charges against the ruling Ennahda Party and its leader, and the mobs in the street chanted the mantra of the Arab revolutions, “the people want the fall of the regime.”

      But the regime in question is the democratically elected government of a country that has already had its revolution. Tunisia was the birthplace of the “Arab spring”. It held its first free election on October 2011, to elect an assembly to write the new constitution. The winner, as in a number of other Arab countries, was a moderate Islamic party.

      The Ennahda-led transitional government has made some mistakes, as you would expect of inexperienced politicians, but it has shown no desire to subvert democracy. Indeed, the Islamic party formed a coalition with two secular centre-left parties after the election, and in the weeks before Belaid’s murder it was deep in talks to broaden the coalition and bring other secular parties in.

      Those other parties have now walked out of the talks, demanding the cancellation of the results of the 2011 election. That certainly does not serve Ennahda’s interests, and the violent protests in the streets are even more of a problem, since they might trigger a military intervention to “restore order”. (The Tunisian army is strongly pro-secularist.) In terms of motive, Ennahda has none. So who would actually benefit from killing Belaid?

      One suspect is the Salafists, religious extremists who despise the Ennahda Party but absolutely hate militant secularists like Belaid. Many in the secular camp criticize Ennahda’s founder and leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, for failing to “crack down” when Salafist fanatics attack peaceful political gatherings, and he must bear some blame here. But that’s still a long way from plotting a murder.

      Ghannouchi, like the leaders of other moderate Islamic parties across the Arab world, is reluctant to treat the Salafists as enemies (even though they are), because they both compete for the votes of pious Muslims. But he also argues, quite reasonably, that mass arrests and torture of Salafists in the style of the old regime is immoral and counterproductive. Just track down the ones who have committed specific crimes.

      Did the Salafists commit this particular crime? Possibly. Killing a militant secularist would be emotionally satisfying to them. But they are not actually the leading suspect in Belaid’s murder.

      The prime suspect is the old ruling elite, people who served the former dictator and have been deprived of power and opportunities for graft since the revolution. They can only regain their privileges if democracy fails, so violence in the streets, extreme political polarization, the discrediting of an elected government, and a military takeover are precisely what they need.

      The Constitutional Democratic Rally, the party whose members loyally served the dictator and were lavishly rewarded by him, was banned after the revolution, and some of its senior members are in jail or in exile.  But there are still plenty of others around, and it would be astonishing if they were not plotting a comeback. The only viable route to that goal is to stimulate a civil war between the secular democrats and the Islamic democrats.

      If this is where the logic takes us, why are some of the secular parties taking to the streets? In some cases, no doubt, grief and rage have led them astray. In other cases, however, there is probably the cynical calculation that this is the most effective way to hurt the Islamic party, even if it had nothing to do with the murder.

      Ennahda’s response has been less than coherent. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, shocked by the news of the murder, offered to replace the government with a cabinet of technocrats and call early elections. But the party’s founder and leader, Rachid Ghannoushi, said that the government should stay in place and track down the murderers.

      Jebali is sticking to his guns, and the outcome is far from clear. The whole thing is a mess, and Tunisians are justifiably concerned that their revolution has lost its way. But there is quite a good chance that they will be able to get the process of building a law-abiding democracy back on track without a major disaster, and it’s certainly far too soon to say that their revolution was a mistake.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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      Feb 10, 2013 at 11:10pm

      Thank you for explaining the situation. As a 50 year-old British reader I am sick to death of news corporations like ITV News and BBC News, who present what has happened totally devoid of anything resembling an analysis. Politics isn't rocket's an ancient art of deceiving and manipulating the masses by, at times, extremely crude means.


      Feb 12, 2013 at 12:45pm

      Pathetic series of excuses for religious fanatics. Dyer, who is an atheist, seems to be in love with Islamists of every stripe. Why does he not go an live under their regimes then? The left, which rages against "Christian" conservatives, just loves the Islamist ones who make Rick Santorum look like Denis Kucinich.

      HBM Tunisian

      Feb 12, 2013 at 4:45pm

      A weak article by someone who knows little about the situation in Tunisia. All the writings about the rise of a theocratic fascism are in bold, and now bloody, letters on the walls: armed militia including former petty criminals and extremist salafists, disguised as a "league for the protection of the revolution" sponsored and protected by the islamist party in power; systematic attacks against intellectuals, artists, scholars, secular higher education institutions, etc. Added to this a local franchise of international islamic terrorism taking root; a ruling Islamic party; the ministry of interior infiltrated by former terrorists. The future is grim indeed. M. Dyer, as very often is delusional!!


      Feb 16, 2013 at 8:39pm

      I look at the situation from a longer perspective. The current destabilization of the Islamic world probably began with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798: an event which began a long process of increasing Western involvement with the Levant which still resonates today. However, Islam has had at least three significant devastations previously: the European Crusades of the 12th Century, the Mongolian slaughters of the 13th Century, and the Iberian crusade culminating the expulsion of Islam from Spain after the capture of Granada in 1492.

      The Ottoman Empire provided a degree of stability to the Islamic world during 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries, but its gradual decline in the 18th and 19th Centuries and dissolution in the 20th Century left a power vacuum which the western powers filled piecemeal and haphazardly over a very short term: less than two centuries: arguably beginning with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 and ending with the British-French farce of 1956.

      A combination of the resulting political instability inherent in the disappearance of central power, combined with a resurgent Israeli nation has made it very easy for dictators to dominate individual Arab Islamic countries. The recent upheavals of the Arab Spring could be an experiment which may lead to, if not to western-style democracy, leaderships which actually feel some urge to govern with the well being of their citizens in mind. However, I keep thinking of Zhou Enlai's alleged comment when asked for an opinion on the French Revolution: “It's too early to tell.”

      HBM Tunisian

      Feb 20, 2013 at 5:56pm

      To hkmm1945

      False analysis based on the abdication of responsibility and blaming The Other for one's own weaknesses. I am Muslim and can tell you that the weakness of the so called "Islamic world" (concept to be defined!) lies FIRST AND FOREMOST in its historical domination by the "salafists" and extremists and their delusional belief in the a-temporal dimension of the Prophet's teachings. Add to this that virtually all the ruler who succeeded the Prophet lost power to murder and assassinations at the hands of their closest associates. The violence and glorification of death in Jihad on which the religion is largely based MUST be reformed. Islam badly needs reform!