The assassination of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaïd, came the morning after he told a television audience that he feared for his life within the country's deteriorating and polarized political situation. In Tunisia's increasingly rancorous political environment, ideological and factional divisions threaten to derail the gains made in the two years since former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was removed from power.
Chokri Belaïd's death was quickly interpreted as signifying a violent new phase in a region-wide struggle between groups that all cast themselves as democratic modernizers but which offer very different visions for their societies and political systems. This includes groups such as Tunisia's ruling Islamist Hizb Ennahda (Renaissance Party), and more puritanical Islamists, often known as Salafists, who contain a jihadist fringe. The emotion surrounding Belaïd's funeral on 8 February, and the demonstrations, violence and political manoeuvrings that followed it, highlight the growing polarization and lack of political direction in Tunisia. The 'troika' government is divided, while the economy has stagnated.
Initial suspicion for the assassination fell on Salafist groups, who have been busy recruiting, especially among young men on the fringes of Tunisian society and whose economic exclusion the revolution was supposed to tackle. There is little doubt that the growing ranks of jihadist Salafists have been spoiling for a fight as they try to push sharia [Islamic law] on the post-revolutionary state. But they are not the only group threatening the 'Jasmine Revolution' that in 2011 promised so much, but which is now in mortal peril.
Belaïd's funeral in Tunis and associated events around the country drew huge crowds, but many descended into brutal clashes between police and demonstrators. Riots in Siliana last year showed how Tunisia's post-revolutionary polarization could lead to violence. The muscular response to the peaceful protests highlights several major issues for post-revolutionary Tunisia. While the police have been re-equipped with new vehicles, little effort has been made to reform the institution, despite its central role in Ben Ali's repressive rule.
In the wider political arena there have been changes, but they have not gone far enough. Ben Ali was overthrown and key family members and a smattering of cronies were removed from positions of influence. There was undoubtedly what's known as a 'circulation of elites' as Tunisia's largest Islamist party, Ennahda, was voted into government alongside two secular parties, all of whom had suffered repression under the ancien régime.
An elected National Constituent Assembly has been working to draw up a new constitution. But as delegates got bogged down in the detail – and, critics say, are getting used to the perks of office – the new constitution's unveiling for approval by referendum has been put back; and with it, so too have elections to replace the current interim government. Meanwhile efforts to overhaul the judiciary, civil service, public companies and other institutions of state that were steeped in Ben Ali's corporatist style of rule, have moved only slowly.
While the 'Salafist threat' should not be under-estimated, neither can the 'counter-revolutionary' challenge that Belaïd and other secular leaders warned of. While Ennahda prime minister Hamadi Jebali tries to form a consensual government of technocrats ahead of elections planned for later this year, threats from within the old 'deep state' as well as from the Islamist fringe, pose a challenge that politicians cannot ignore.
Tunisia emerged from its revolution with a 'troika' of secular and Islamist parties including President Moncef Marzouki's Congrès pour la République (CPR) and assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jafaar's Ettakatol, along with Ennahda. They are challenged by a number of parties, notably former interim premier Beji Caïd Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes, and powerful lobbies led by the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) labour federation and its Ennahda rival.
These emergent politicians are obliged to oversee constitutional change and rebuild political institutions. Above all they need to get the economy moving again, spreading resources and social progress beyond the wealthy Tunis hinterland into the marginalized areas where the uprising began. Those priorities are ever more pressing as the revolution fails to deliver for those who put their lives on the line to oust Ben Ali.
The Belaïd killing shows just how high the stakes have risen, and how bleak the outlook could become if Tunisia's politicized factions prove incapable of looking beyond their own partisan interests.