I was on Habib Bourguiba Avenue around noon yesterday, Friday, February 8th. If you were downtown then and were sporting a long black beard emblematic of Tunisia’s militant-Islamic Salafist movement, I can only say that you were a brave man. For yesterday, liberal, left-wing and secular Tunisia was out in force. It was mourning the socialist politician Chokri Belaid, who was assassinated three days ago – by persons of some extreme political and probably extreme religious persuasion – and who was laid to rest in Al Jellaz Cemetery on the south side of Tunis yesterday afternoon.
There seemed nearly as many women as men on the avenue – Belaid’s widow had requested that, in spite of Tunisian custom, female mourners should attend the funeral as well as male ones – and hijabs and other items of Islamic female attire were at a minimum. Indeed, the vibe reminded me of how things were there just over two years ago, when crowds gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior building at the avenue’s end to demand (successfully) the departure of old dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Back then too, the protestors had had a secular, liberal look about them. On January 14th, 2011, there’d been no guys in beards, smocks and sneakers, no black Islamic flags, no chanting for the introduction of Sharia law – those things only appeared after the revolution, when the Salafists started to crawl out of the woodwork and make the most of their new-found freedoms under democracy (a concept, incidentally, they reject as being un-Islamic).
As I’ve said throughout the lifetime of this blog, the arrival of a government dominated by the moderate (it’s claimed) Islamic party Ennahdha emboldened the Salafists in their seeming mission to make life as miserable as possible for their less devout fellow-citizens. The more aggressive they became, the less willing the government seemed to be to stop them, and so they became more aggressive still – targeting everyone and everything from pub-owners and dramatists to Sufi mausoleums and the American embassy. Indeed, after some of those outrages, Ennahdha seemed to show more interest in prosecuting the victims – TV stations, artists, academics – than in prosecuting the perpetrators, which obviously encouraged the Salafists to behave even more badly.
Some believe that Belaid was murdered by the Salafists, who hated him because of his steadfast support for secular politics in Tunisia. Some also believe that Ennahdha members themselves were embroiled in the assassination, since Belaid was a considerable thorn in their side too.
Yesterday on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, I wondered if Tunisia had changed at all in the past two years – and if it had changed, if it’d actually done so for the better. The Interior Ministry building was now more fortified than ever, sealed off from the surrounding avenue by no fewer than three coiling layers of razor-wire, stacked precariously on top of one another. The area inside the wire, immediately in front of the building, was choc-a-bloc with white police vans. While I was standing there, a vagrant with a grimy beard and clothes that were little better than rags went past, pushing a trolley-cum-wheelbarrow contraption that was loaded with plastic bags bulging with rubbish. The sight of this rubbish-scavenging hobo against the background of razor-wire seemed to uncomfortably sum up the economic and security achievements of Ennahdha since coming to power.
Also walking past me there was an elderly man in a suit, who had the tweedy and eccentric demeanour of a university professor. He had two corners of the Tunisian flag knotted around his throat, so that the flag itself hung down his back. He looked like a figure I might’ve seen two years ago during the revolution against Ben Ali.
As well as the collective sense of grief, there seemed to be an undercurrent of fear among the people I saw yesterday. A helicopter chuntering to and fro above, like a big metallic bluebottle, did nothing to ease the tense atmosphere. Neither did the presence of armoured riot policemen, a few of them wearing grotesque black rapist / terrorist-style balaclavas. When I reached the intersection of Bourguiba Avenue and the Avenue de Paris, I noticed several people standing and staring fearfully upwards. I followed their upward gaze and saw that a figure was perched on the roof of the building, about eight storeys high, on the corner across from the Hana Hotel – I got the impression the people on the street were afraid that this was a sniper. I was spooked myself on a different section of the avenue when two motorcycles, both carrying passengers, came scooting along the pavement. The two pillion-riders had rifles slung over their shoulders.
As it turned out, there were some disturbances – particularly when some opportunistic youths from a rundown neighbourhood near Al Jellaz tried to break into cars that’d been parked outside the packed cemetery, and were confronted by policemen overseeing the funeral. (“Those kids were probably paid to do it by Salafists,” snorted a Tunisian acquaintance today.) But overall, the day passed off with considerably less trouble than many had feared.
One thing is for certain. Belaid’s tragic death and the mass grief expressed yesterday – I’ve heard claims that as many as a million people were out on the streets of Tunis paying their respects, and obviously many more followed the funeral’s intensive coverage on TV – have catapulted Tunisia back into the world’s headlines. For most of the afternoon, for instance, these events constituted the main story on the BBC’s news website. Thus, with so many eyes upon them globally, politicians here would be wise to tread extremely carefully.
Among those politicians, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali surfaced again yesterday afternoon and repeated his determination to dissolve the current government and replace it with a caretaker one, comprised of non-political ‘technocrats’, who’d steer the country on a steady course until new elections were held. He’d first proposed this on Wednesday evening, to the great surprise of his party, Ennahdha – which promptly responded that no, the government wasn’t going to be dissolved. Now those party members must be privately wishing that the ground would just open up and swallow their prime minister.
What is Jebali up to? Does he have a cunning plan here that’ll rescue the country from its present political crisis? Or is the plan designed to serve his own interests? Or have recent events merely left him dazed and confused? Time, I guess, will tell. (http://www.kapitalis.com/politique/14376-hamadi-jebali-attache-a-la-formation-d-un-gouvernement-de-technocrates-malgre-l-opposition-d-ennahdha.html; http://www.tap.info.tn/en/index.php/politics2/5493-hamadi-jebali-to-announce-shortly-line-up-of-new-government-and-will-start-consultations-with-parties.)
Incidentally, it was reported yesterday – on the Facebook page of Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem, who by a happy coincidence is also son-in-law of Ennahdha leader Rachid Ghannouchi – that the government has summoned Francois Gouyette, the French ambassador to Tunisia, for a bollocking. This was in response to a comment made by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls following Belaid’s murder, about ‘rising Islamic fascism’ in Tunisia, a comment that Abdessalem and company interpreted as being unacceptable French interference in their country’s affairs. (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/06/live-updates-fallout-from-leftist-politician-chokri-belaids-assassination/.)
Tunisians mindful of their country’s history must find this ironic. The last time a major figure on the Tunisian political left was assassinated, it was in 1952 and the victim was Farhat Hached, who’d been the first secretary general of the country’s trade union organisation, the UGTT (which marked Belaid’s funeral yesterday with a one-day general strike). In this capacity, Hached had focused the UGTT’s energies on winning Tunisia’s independence from France, making it a great rock of support for Habib Bourguiba and his pro-independence Neo Destour Party. This was too much for the French. In early December 1952, two carloads of assassins from a French paramilitary outfit called La Main Rouge (quite possibly supported by the French colonial administration) murdered Hached while he was at the wheel of his own car. The first car fired shots into his vehicle, severely wounding him, and drove away. When the wounded Hached managed to crawl out onto the road, the second car pulled up and its occupants climbed out and shot him again, finishing him off. (http://www.opendemocracy.net/rob-prince/tunisia-siliana-and-heritage-of-farhat-hached-sixty-years-after-his-assassination; http://robertjprince.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/farhat-hached-and-the-struggle-for-tunisian-independence-2/.)
There may well be truth in what Valls has said; but for the French to go lecturing the Tunisians about fascism, given their own history of fascistically eliminating Tunisian leftists, lays them open to jibes about kettles calling pots black.
I know shamefully little about Tunisian history, but I suspect that one reason why Belaid’s murder has hit such a massive nerve here is because of how Farhat Hached and his fate three generations ago are engrained on the national consciousness. Indeed I’ve heard at least one enthusiastic socialist describe Hached as ‘Tunisia’s Che Guevara’. Seeing how his face is on billboards all over town today, I wonder if poor Chokri Belaid is going to become the new Hached – or even the new Che.
Here are a few of the more interesting pieces I’ve found on the Internet about Tunisia, and about Chokri Belaid, in the past few days: