The murder of Mohamed Brahmi, one of the leaders of the People`s Movement Party - part of the opposition coalition Popular Front - and a member of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), is the last act of political violence just in the middle of the Tunisian democratic transition’s path. The killing, which occurred with the same modalities of Chokri Belaid’s on 6 February, took place on a special day for Tunisia. Indeed, it was a national holiday, the anniversary of the Republic’s proclamation and, at the same time, during the month of Ramadan. Therefore, the very date of the murder seems to have been specifically chosen as a symbolic act. Despite the fact that Brahmi was not one of the best-known leaders of the opposition front against the so-called Troika - the current government consisting of the Islamic party Ennahda and the two socialist and secular formations Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic – Brahmi’s assassination contributes to the rise in the level of tension in the country. It has turned into a new opportunity to attack Ennahda, accused by detractors of being, at least, "morally responsible" for the political violence that is affecting Tunisia. The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the largest trade union in the country, proclaimed a general strike for Friday, 26 July. The opposition’s aim seems to be to provoke a new government crisis, just as happened in the aftermath of Belaid’s death, which caused a cabinet reshuffle. However, before looking into the issue of responsibility for this assassination, it is necessary to answer the question: who benefits from this murder? In order to provide an answer to this question, we need to list the major factors that are characterizing the delicate phase of democratization in Tunisia.
First of all, the political and social polarization. More than two years after Ben Ali’s fall, Tunisia appears prey to a clash of identity that, in previous decades, had not yet manifested itself in all its strength. This is the first and most visible outcome of the liberalization process started after Ben Ali’s fall. The two souls of the country, the Islamic-conservative one and the secularist-progressive one – although even this categorization is just a simplification - seem more distant than ever and less inclined to dialogue. On the one hand, Ennahda has actually tried to go beyond the divisions, by agreeing to rule in coalition with secular and socialist parties – even if it must be stressed that it would not have had the numbers to govern alone – but, at the same time, it also showed evidence of impatience toward any dissent. On the other hand, anti-Islamist and secular forces, even among civil society, show a basic prejudice against Ennahda. They refuse dialogue with the Islamists and this does not allow any compromise of national unity. The deep Tunisian cleavages are radicalizing more and more and, in this climate, any attempt to overcome the conflict of identity seems to be in vain. The result is a political stalemate that threatens to exacerbate the tensions and wear down the progresses that, in spite of everything, have been made during these two years.
While the Tunisian political debate is still monopolized by the dichotomy Islam vs. secularism, on the other hand the fact that within Ennahda itself are emerging two different positions is becoming increasingly evident. Alongside a moderate wing, there is a most radical one, whose positions are strengthened by the general climate of polarization. More and more insistently, there are rumors about a possible split within the Islamic party and the formation of a new party, under the guidance of Hamadi Jebali, the former prime minister who was forced to resign after Belaid’s death, when he had proposed the creation of a government of national unity. Although Ennahda tend not to make visible outside these divisions, it is clear that some sort of showdown is occurring. This would weaken Ennahda and make the Tunisian political landscape even more complex, opening up possible scenarios of unprecedented convergence between the less extreme parties of the two sides, the Islamist and the secularist one.
The political stalemate has been well demonstrated by the difficulties in reaching a final agreement on the new constitution. The issue assumes an essential significance, as the constitution’s ratification would be the first step toward the fulfillment of the transitional phase. At this moment, the NCA is about to discuss the fourth draft of the constitution amid enduring tensions and complaints by the opposition. The issues at the center of the debate reflect once again the major social cleavage between Islamists and secularists: the role of religion within the state and the prominence given to Islam, referred to as the state’s religion. Furthermore, other debated issues are the safeguard of basic civil and political rights and the reform of the judicial system. Although Ennahda has decided against making any reference to shari’a as a source of law, as well as the principle of the complementarity status for women instead of the equality one, some disagreement still remains. It is likely that the fourth draft of the constitution will be eventually approved, but a strong debate will still happen around it.
In addition to the political stalemate, Tunisia has security problems. The most radical and extra-parliamentary political Islam, especially the Salafi movement Ansar al-Sharia, has come to threaten directly the Ennahda-led government and to confront the state forces as demonstrated by the last May’s unrest. The exclusion of Salafis from the political process is due in part to their very anti-systemic nature, but on the other hand is due to the fact that the government has decided to switch to a policy of repression against them. However, the real security issue lies on the borders with Algeria and is represented by the supposed presence of jihad-related elements in the mountainous area of Jebel Chambi. The issue remains to be elucidated and it has already indirectly caused the resignation of Chief of Staff Rachid Ammar. At the same time, it is likely to be used against Ennahda by opponents, especially the movement Nida Tounes.
On the opposition side, there are no political forces able to obtain a unique anti-Islamist consensus. Those most opposed to Ennahda are, at the same time, suspicious of a movement like Nida Tounes. The latter presents itself as the real alternative to the Islamic party, but includes elements close to the former regime and is driven by an old politician, the eighty-seven-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, and is found to be ambiguous and too close to the former regime. During the days of the Egyptian Tamarrod movement, a new mobilization has started in Tunisia too, especially through social media and other informal channels. However, if we take a deeper look at the Tunisian Tamarrod movement, we find out that it is still an outsider movement, unable to act as a catalyst of dissent like the Egyptian one. This is due to the different paths that the Egyptian and Tunisian squares have gone through, the Egyptian transition process having been much more troubled than the Tunisian one. The Tunisian political system still seems to be monopolized by an old class of politicians and, at a social level, by the hard confrontation between Islamists and their detractors.
This brings us to the generational question and, more generally, to the economic issues: forty percent of Tunisians are under twenty-four years old and the youth unemployment rate exceeds thirty percent. The youth, defined as “an active force in building the homeland” in article 8 of the fourth constitutional draft, do not participate in the political process. Only seventeen percent of the population between eighteen and thirty-five voted in the elections of October 2011 and the disillusionment with the new party system appears to be widespread, although there are other places to participate in the public life, as demonstrated by the civil society associationism and by political activism in the universities (although even in the latter case the confrontation is merely ideological, more than of content). The economic situation is still critical, although a little progress is being made. Last month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a 1.74 billion dollar loan for Tunisia to help its economy recover. This is good news for the Tunisian government, but the real test is yet to come. Tunisia’s foreign currency reserves (6.3 billion dollars) are still below the level considered as adequate from the Central Bank and tourism revenues have plunged since 2011, even if they are gradually recovering. It is true that Tunisian economic growth accelerated in the second quarter of 2013 (up three percent), but at the same time more political stability and internal security are needed in order to keep the growth trends.
In this situation, then, who benefits from the murder of Brahmi and the disturbances that could follow? Although many have accused Ennahda, the latter would not derive great benefit from a possible political crisis. The party is divided; its popularity has been reached, if not exceeded by, Nida Tounes. Furthermore, Ennahda’s difficulties are greater when considering the controversy over the failure to respond to the threat of radical Islam. The latter in turn is seen as a possible culprit in political assassinations (even the Belaid one), but at a closer look it would not have any interest in them; rather, its political opponent is Ennahda itself. If the political situation worsens and new elections are held soon (but with which constitution?), the opposition may gain more, as they may point out Ennahda as responsible for the current situation. On the other hand, however, the current government could exploit the instability to maintain power in the name of the emergency situation. The picture is complex and the escalation of violence is likely to blow up the balance.
Finally, one consideration remains: Tunisia is not Egypt and, although it is not ruled out completely, it is more unlikely that it will come to a civil war scenario. Rather Tunisia will try to solve this difficult situation by political means, mainly in the absence of a strong and pervasive army like the Egyptian one. Nevertheless, first of all the path towards reconciliation between Islamists and secularists needs to resume, bearing in mind that Tunis is the only Arab capital in which political Islam is driving the transition process, despite all the difficulties and contradictions.