Leading Tunisian opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi was shot to death outside his home Thursday in the country’s second political assassination this year. The incident risks igniting the same nationwide indignation that followed the February 6 assassination of Chokri Belaid, also a member of the secular Popular Front (PF) coalition. The leftist leader’s death also threatens to upset the see-saw approach Ennahda, the ruling Islamist party, has employed to appease both (equally critical) ends of the political spectrum.
Since winning Tunisia’s first democratic elections post-Arab Spring in October 2011, Ennahda has been lambasted by secularists for being too soft on religious extremists, even as fundamentalis Salafists have attacked the party’s Islamist credentials. Fallout over Belaid’s death prompted a government reshuffle and a relatively tougher stance towards radical Islamists under Prime Minister Ali Larayedh. But as religious violence increased, perpetuated by jihadists camped out near Tunisia’s borders and so-called morality police within its urban zones, so did disillusionment with the self-proclaimed moderate government. Frustration among Tunisians has been compounded by economic stagnation, high youth unemployment and a troubling judiciary stance that saw U.S. Embassy bombers receive light sentences in May, even as courts cracked down on a number of liberal journalists, rappers, and feminists.
But while the government’s recent assault on civil liberties — highlighted by the detention of Tunisian feminist Amina Sboui and her European counterparts — aroused international media attention, local anger failed to coalesce into a nationwide push for revolt. Unfortunately for Ennahda, Thursday’s assassination may provide the impetus for such a coalescence. (Note that in the two years since the party took power, insecurity has remained a major concern for Tunisians, behind only employment.) After the downfall of the Morsi government in Egypt, Ennahda is looking especially vulnerable. The Tunisian incarnation of Tamarod — the Egyptian youth movement that pushed for Morsi’s ouster — has been maneuvering for weeks for a similar “non-coup.” Protests have already broken out in downtown Tunis and Brahmi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid (now-famous as the birthplace of the Arab Spring). More protests have been scheduled for Friday, as has a general strike called for by Tunisia’s largest labor union. But amid fiery calls for government dissolution, one wonders if Tunisia’s opposition can take advantage of the momentum.
Though similar protests followed Belaid’s death, the Popular Front failed to transform Tunisians’ outrage into political collateral. (In fact, Nidaa Tounes was the only secular party to pull ahead of Ennahda in national polls this spring.) On a broader level, opposition parties have yet to penetrate Tunisia’s impoverished hinterlands — regions where Salafists have made inroads by filling humanitarian needs — or appeal to Tunisia’s disenfranchised youth. More worrying still are divisions between and within Tunisia’s main secular parties. In April, Nidaa Tounes publicly struggled to nominate a presidential candidate, only to select its founder, Beji Caid Essebsi, whose age may disqualify him. Within the Popular Front, a loose coalition of Marxist and nationalist groups, allegations of Islamist infiltration prompted Brahmi to resign as general secretary of his People’s Party weeks before his death. At the same time, Tamarod Tunisia saw three of its founding members depart, fueling rumors of infighting.
What’s more, opposition parties have proven unable (or unwilling) to build a coherent, united platform to challenge the Ennahda-led coalition. Such fractiousness proved disastrous in 2011. Now, the secular opposition’s continued failure to close ranks could cost them the national elections set to take place by the end of the year. And with it the chance to democratically steer Tunisia away from an Islamist government — sans military intervention.