The ‘quake’: Learning from the assassination of Chokri Belaid

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

The assassination of leftist opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, last week, was an unprecedented act of political violence in Tunisia’s recent history. Across the political spectrum and throughout society at large, it was the equivalent of a quake.

Despite the mounting tensions and increasing polarization since the revolution, nobody ever expected such a heinous crime to happen. Common wisdom, domestically, had it that “the irreversible” will somehow be avoided, always. Tunisians’ reputation for pragmatism and moderation was based on their century-old tradition of aversion to violence. Political assassinations were among the red lines which were not supposed to be crossed, ever.

When it was announced by radio stations, in the morning rush-hour broadcasts of the 6th of February, the news of the shooting was met first by shock and disbelief. Listeners, on their way to work or sitting in their offices, remained glued to their radio sets. Upon confirmation of the assassination, feelings of sadness and anxiety pervaded large segments of society. Not only were people emotionally shaken by the unprecedented violence. They were deeply anguished about their own future and that of their country.

Belaid and Bourguiba

The event was obviously the subject of intensive media coverage, at home and abroad. Reporters were immediately present at the crime scene and at the clinic where the leftist politician was pronounced dead. The funeral procession was carried live by public and private television channels. Commenting upon the live coverage, political commentator Slaheddine Jourchi could not help but compare the continuous live coverage of Belaid’s funeral to the hindered coverage of the funeral of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president. Back in the year 2000, when Bourguiba died, the media were told that live coverage of the funeral was “technically not feasible”. A lame excuse for a lame decision to deprive the nation from bidding farewell to its charismatic leader, who despite the obvious shortcomings of some of his policies, was the most revered figure of Tunisia’s post- independence history. Nobody believed the “technical unfeasibility” explanation, since state television used to carry football games and music concerts live from all corners of the country.

This time around, coverage was unfettered and uninterrupted, for hours if not days. The public was able to mourn collectively. But, in an already-polarized political environment, accusations and expressions of blame flew left and right, exacerbating an already polarized political environment. In the radio and television talk-shows, the secular vs. Islamist divide was wider than ever. Suspicion between the two camps never seemed so acute and so dangerously-loaded.

All Tunisians had reason to grieve over this tragedy. Because of last week’s murder, their country has lost a lot of its luster, serenity and self-confidence. Children, watching the day-long funeral procession, were deeply unsettled. Today, most Tunisians are eager to hear the voices of reason which can guide them to overcoming the current challenge to their national unity. Students of Tunisian 20th century history remember how the assassination of trade-unionist leader Farhat Hached, in 1952, by a French death-squad strengthened the resolve of Tunisians and Maghrebis against French occupation. But they remember, also, how the assassination in Germany of Destourian dissident- leader Salah Ben Youssef, in 1961, by allegedly pro-Bourguiba agents, has left wounds that have yet to heal.

Aftershock tremors

Political actors have a particular responsibility managing the crisis. They need to nudge the country towards taking a step back away from the brink; and think instead of the democratic transition they must pursue and the economy they have to re-build. They should remember that there is a time for political calculus and a time for caring for the wounded soul of their country, especially that the country cannot afford protracted instability or open-ended uncertainty.

The aftershock tremors will probably continue to be felt, for a while, across the political spectrum and in society at large. The tragic death of Chokri Belaid could end up driving Tunisians further apart; but it could also usher in a national reconciliation process whose time has come. It all depends whether Tunisians can see the risks of civil strife and anarchy, which can emanate from expressions of incitement and hate. It all depends whether political protagonists can acquire the positive-sum-game mindsets that can put them on the path of peaceful power-sharing and strengthen their common resolve to achieve the goals for which the unemployed youth of Tunisia rose up two years ago. It all depends whether their common DNA of tolerance and moderation can finally prevail over current political feuds. There odds are, it will. Recent signs do show in fact that wisdom is prevailing.

The most urgent task for all the new actors today should be to rise above partisan considerations and say an absolute “No” to political violence. While it is absolutely necessary that all light to be shed on last week’s outrageous crime, the consensus should be that violence cannot be allowed to engender further violence. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” said once the Mahatma Ghandi.

Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

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