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Militants and Political Slayings Are Keeping Tunisia in Revolution Limbo

Three years on, Tunisians are still not happy.

by Robert Joyce
29 October 2013, 12:50pm


Barbed wire at a protest in Tunis, Tunisia last Wednesday, the second anniversary of the country's post-revolution elections

Last Wednesday in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, an old man stood screaming at police through barbed wire while a crowd of onlookers cheered him on. He was adamant that the riot cops – suited up like heavily armoured, monochromatic Power Rangers – were protecting a government of "terrorists".

It was the second anniversary of the country's post-revolution elections and it wasn't the day's only show of anti-regime dissent. At least six security officers were killed by unknown gunmen in central Tunisia during a raid on a suspected militant base. The town where the attack took place – Sidi Ali Ben Aoun – is in the Sidi Bouzid governorate, famed as the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Then, late Wednesday night, a police officer was killed and another injured after being shot at from a rented car at a checkpoint in the northern town of Menzel Bourguiba. Authorities are still pursuing suspects.

Overall then, this past week turned out to be another curveball for Tunisia's transition into democracy. In 2011, Tunisians – angry about a poor economy and political oppression – toppled autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia. It was the first uprising in the insurrectionary wave that would later wash across the Arab world. That autumn, Tunisians voted for an assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. Ennahda, a long persecuted Islamist party, won elections with approximately 40 percent of the vote and entered into a coalition with the next two big winners, the Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic parties.

On Wedneday, the second anniversary of those elections, thousands took to the streets to protest against what their country has become. After two political assassinations, multiple militant attacks and nonstop back and forth between government and opposition leaders, Tunisians – as one newspaper noted – have had enough. "We are going to stand here and not be intimidated by these mercenaries," shouted Mohamed el-Kbaier, a second man venting at the riot police in Tunis.

Wednesday’s protest coincided with what was meant to be the official start of high-level political talks aimed at steering the country out of a three-month paralysis. Instead, the various militant attacks delayed negotiations and added to the rage already felt by many protesters.


Protests in Tunis on the second anniversary of the country's post-revolution elections

The planned talks hinged on Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh expressing a clear commitment to resign, preferably – for the majority of Tunisians – within a matter of weeks. He was meant to speak early in the day, paving the way for talks to start ceremoniously in the afternoon. Instead, the attack at the militant base delayed his address and took priority in his remarks. Laarayedh gave no date for his resignation and his speech was full of jargonistic wish-wash.

"We renew our commitment to leaving power as part of a comprehensive and interlinked process including steps detailed in the roadmap to avoid a political vacuum," said Laarayedh, who was jailed and tortured under the former regime for his Islamist political views.

The three months of political stalemate leading up to the talks stemmed from the assassination of leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi, who was shot dead in front of his family in July. The murder was the second political slaying in six months. In February, fellow leftist Chokri Belaid was also gunned down in front of his home – with, police say, the same gun later used to kill Brahmi.

Both deaths proved to be major disruptions to the post-revolutionary transition. Belaid’s murder shocked the country and ultimately led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and the appointment of more independents to ministerial posts. After the Brahmi shooting, around 60 members of Tunisia’s constituent assembly walked out, bringing the constitutional drafting process to a halt. Protests rocked the country for the rest of the summer, with both the opposition and the Islamist-led government drawing thousands to the streets.

The same revolutionary atmosphere returned to downtown Tunis on Wednesday. Many angry protesters slammed the government for letting militants kill officers, while others complained of over two and a half years of stagnation. "For those who took part in the revolution, there's no progress and no development," said Ahlem Gharbi, an artist who was taking part in the protests.

The government blames both murders and all the militant attacks on the extremist Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia. Officially banned in May, the group was still visible well into summer while they carried out a sizeable charity drive, feeding the poor and handing out dates to Ramadan fast-breakers. In August, the Ministry of Interior officially accused Ansar al-Sharia of the killings and of having ties with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, sending the group underground. Since then, police raids across the country have rounded up suspected militants and have, in some cases, been deadly.

Protesters clash with police in Tunis

Tunisia’s leaders also blame a combination of the political instability (or, in the words of interim President Moncef Marzouki, "this damn transitional period") and regional neighbours for the recent violence. As Marzouki has noted, Tunisia is not an island and is essentially a country surrounded by chaos; with a never-ending war on Islamist militants raging in Algeria, war in Mali and a free-for-all in Libya. In the minds of many Tunisians, the militant attacks are evidence that the violence is seeping across the border.

Some activists, however, have ignored the ruling party's claims and instead compared Ennahda to the demonised Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the party of overthrown president Mohamed Morsi. The problem with the comparison is that Ennahda governs as part of a coalition with secular partners and has repeatedly compromised with the opposition, while Morsi’s rule was characterised by near-autocratic exclusion. Though these facts don’t seem to bother the opposition's young supporters.

"The Brotherhood is the same, whether in Tunisia or Egypt or across the Arab world," said Abdellaoui, a leftist protester. "They have a bloody history and will stop at nothing to further their diabolical schemes."

Young people, angry in 2011 because they couldn’t find jobs, are angrier now because even more of them cannot find jobs. Unemployment that stood at 13 percent before the revolution now stands at almost 17 percent. Furthermore, the fact that Tunisia has seemingly experienced one crisis after another has meant that many issues have remained unresolved since the revolution, such as taking care of those attacked by police.

Mourad Dahmani, who lost an eye in a protest when he was hit with birdshot in Siliana, a town 125 kilometres to the southwest of Tunis, was protesting on Wednesday. "I haven’t received any form of compensation," he said. "The wounded of the revolution do not know who to go to for help. No one would listen to us."

Protests and shootings do not create a helpful atmosphere for talks. Very early on Thursday, tired civil society mediators came out of their lair to tell the world that they had more talking to do before talks could begin. Of course, it still remains to be seen whether those talks will even be remotely successful – but before the politics move forward, Tunisia will pause to mourn its dead defenders. 

Additional reporting by Hanen Keskes.

Robert also writes for Tunisia Live, an English-language news website based in Tunis. 

Folllow Robert on Twitter: @Rjoyce908

More from Tunisia and its stumbling revolution:

We Spoke to FEMEN About Their Topless Tunisian Protest

Happy International Topless Jihad Day!

Dispatch from Tunis: Teenagers and Salafists Storm the US Embassy