People hold a placard showing the late secular opposition
leader Chokri Belaid during his funeral procession in the
Jebel Jelloud district in Tunis last Friday. Tens of
thousands of mourners chanted anti-Islamist slogans at the
funeral. His assassination has plunged Tunisia deeper into
political crisis. Photo by Reuters.
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/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 last
Wednesday, and the country immediately erupted in violent
anti-Government 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
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 Mr
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 Chokri Belaid?
One suspect is the Salafists, religious extremists who
despise the Ennahda party but absolutely hate militant
secularists like Mr Belaid. Many in the secular camp
criticise 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
But that's still a long way from plotting a murder. Mr
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
Chokri 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 polarisation, 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 Ghannouchi, said that the Government
should stay in place and track down the murderers.
Mr 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 London