Political assassinations have constituted, until now, rare occurrences in Tunisia. It was therefore not surprising to see the country brought to a standstill since the last Thursday’s killing of Mohamed Brahmi, the Nasserite member of the Constituent Assembly and leader of the leftist political movement “al-Tayyar al Shaabi” (the Popular Current).
Even if people in this usually peaceful nation have not accepted this kind of violence as part of the country’s “new normal,” they had to cope with another “unprecedented” occurrence; the very day of the burial of the assassinated politician, a home-made car bomb exploded in front of a police station near the capital.
For the second time in less than six months, pundits and media analysts have turned to crime sleuths. Last February, politicians and journalists took part in a national search for the killer of leftist opposition leader Chokri Belaid. This week, shocked Tunisians spent a lot of time wondering who riddled Mohamed Brahmi with bullets in broad day light.
During the past few days, the country’s security agencies were more forthcoming with information than during the preceding six months. The initial findings, made public Friday by the Interior Ministry, shed light not only on the murder cases of Brahmi and Belaid but also on the presumed involvement of jihadists in other terrorist activities. It was revealed that many of the perpetrators of both crimes belonged to Ansar al-Sharia, a pro- al-Qaeda jihadist formation which had claimed until now not to be interested in the “waging of jihad” in Tunisia. Assassins used the same modus operandi (and incredibly even the same 9mm semi-automatic weapon) to assassinate both leftist leaders.
With at least eight jihadist elements still on the run, the full story will have to await the capture of “key fugitives,” especially Boubaker el-Hakim, a known French jihadist of Tunisian origin who had fought in Iraq in the ranks of al-Qaeda. Hakim was arrested by Syrian authorities and handed over to the French after trying to cross into Iraq illegally. In 2008, he was convicted by a Paris court of the recruitment of jihadists to join the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Not much however is known about the circumstances of Hakim’s return to Tunisia after 2010 and his activities there ever since. According to authorities, he has had a role in arms smuggling from Libya and in last year’s attack against the U.S. embassy in Tunis. His name also came up on the list of extremists suspected of involvement in the armed activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in the Cha’ambi Mountains, west of Tunisia.
Even if the names of the individuals who planned the murder and eventually pulled the trigger in the two murder cases are known, there is yet no clear idea of the motive. There are in fact more questions than answers in this regard. What was, for instance, the scope of involvement of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) as a group, and was it connected in any way to AQIM’s strategy in the region? Was the last murder perpetrated in retaliation for Brahmi’s strong support for anti-Muslim Brotherhood forces in Egypt and for the loyalist camp in Syria?
Were the two assassinations motivated by Salafist resentment for leftists and secularists in Tunisia (especially that jihadist leaders never concealed their hostility to those they considered “secularists and leftist opponents” and “proxies for enemies lurking from the outside”)? Nothing is certain, especially that on Saturday AST issued a statement denying any involvement in the Brahmi murder.
“Ansar al-Sharia has chosen the path of Da’waa (preaching) for Allah in this country and has nothing to do with ongoing internal political strife manipulated by hidden interests from the East and West, as part of the religion of democracy which contradicts the laws of the Almighty,” the statement read.
A shaken political landscape
Whatever the real motives, however the consequences of the murder have deeply shaken the political landscape. Brahmi’s assassination occurred against a background of pre-existing political tensions. Opposition formations have accused the government of “dereliction of duty” in the handling of the two murders and the overall security situation. Minister of Interior, Lutfi bin Jidu however clearly hinted on Thursday at the responsibility of previous post-revolution governments, which had pardoned many convicted terrorists (including those involved in the 2006-2007 attacks in Slimane, south of the capital), and allowed others to return to Tunisia after January 2011.
Political leaders outside the ruling troika are calling for a national “emergency” government and for the dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly. There are even those who are advocating a “civil disobedience” campaign. “Pure nihilism,” Khalil al-Zaouia, a current member of government, said in response to this.
Spokesmen for the Ennahda-led coalition insist on the “electoral legitimacy” of the current government. But it is not clear however what is going to be the next move of the ruling troika in order to ride the current heavy turbulence.
Tunisian politics these days are much like Matriyoshka dolls, the nested wooden figures from Russia. A crisis nests a crisis which nests another crisis. The murder of Brahmi, in itself a political disaster, has bred a major political crisis with an uncertain outcome. The prevailing tense polarization has been rendered even less tenable. The spluttering political dialogue has been put on hold by the trade union and secular opposition. Historian Khaled Abid calls instead for the “voice of reason” to prevail, stressing the need for an “end of the dialogue of the deaf” and for “courageous initiatives.”
Overall, there isn’t much optimism in the air. In “the interconnectedness of Arab Seasons,” as political analyst Paul Salem calls it, public opinions and political elites closely monitor experiences in neighboring countries. The “regional scenarios” invoked on Tunisian TV talk-shows these days do not reflect much faith in the ability of the political class to resolve the ongoing crisis. When regional examples are invoked, it is not to highlight possibilities of negotiated conflict-settlement, but to make dire forecasts. Episodes of Algerian, Egyptian and Lebanese contemporary or recent political history are mentioned as possible “scenarios” awaiting Tunisia. Some warned about the Libyan insecurity scenario next door. A day after the assassination of Brahimi, there were three new murders in Benghazi, including that of lawyer and political activist Abdulsalam Mesmari, the latest bloody episode in an endless string of politically motivated executions. Political expert Mohamed Bou’oud even adds another scenario, that of Syria’s civil war.
Despite all dire predictions, the country is still far away from such external scenarios. A “Tunisian scenario” is in fact still possible, if Tunisian politicians manage to reasonably deal with their own demons. Both the low expectations regarding the future as well as the chronically-turbulent politics of the country are in great measure a natural result of the zero-sum-game legacy of Tunisia’s contemporary history. Ever since independence, Tunisian politics were funneled through a kind of destructive paradigm where political victors left no breathing space for losers. For that reason probably, the whole political class seems today consumed by endless infighting. “It is all a struggle for power, both by those who want to keep it and those who want to gain access to it,” explains Tunisian constitutional jurist Kais Said.
The challenge of democratic transition in Tunisia is to break free of this mold. British writer Philip Stephens wrote recently: “Dictators operate zero-sum regimes. Democracy demands positive sum outcomes that safeguard the interests of minorities as well.”
Internal divisions have prevented Tunisian political protagonists from focusing adequately enough on the domestic and regional security concerns of the country. The dangerous fallouts from the trans-border flow of weapons and fighters from Libya, since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, have not been a top item on the agenda of political parties. Mutual fear and suspicion has prevented any real debate about some of the vitally-important issues.
For the climate of mutual suspicion and fear to dissipate, a genuine national reconciliation process has to be launched today by the political protagonists. Post-December 2010 uprisings succeeded because dissatisfied young people stopped fearing iron-fisted autocrats. But fear is no more a top-down phenomenon today. It has spread horizontally. Fear is in the hearts of Islamists apprehensive of being forced again by authoritarian secularists to relive past experiences of ostracism, prison and exile. Secularists are, on the other hand, inhabited by the fear of being deprived of their way of life and personal freedoms. Demonized by the left and the right, former officials fear becoming mere “remnants” at the mercy of courts and prison wards.
Fear leads to radicalized forms of political behavior. Feeling threatened in their very existence, vying groups end up looking for militias (and eventually for armies) to defend their visions of society. When that happens, political life becomes a Hobbesian game of who instills more fear in the heart of his foe.
Ending fear needs visionaries who can draw new political roadmaps allowing all members of society to be true stakeholders. “We must act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all,” said a visionary named Nelson Mandela nearly 20 years ago. Mohamed Brahmi, rest in peace.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. A former Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University in Washington DC, he served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. Appointed as minister in 2009, he is known as one of the best Tunisian communication specialists. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.