The murder of Shokri Belaid is a sign that Tunisia’s 'Jasmine Revolution' is turning dark

The staple demand of all Arab revolutions – “the people want the fall of the regime” - could be heard in Tunis after a leading member of the opposition was shot

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Blood spattered on Tunisia’s supposedly gentle “Jasmine Revolution” yesterday when Shokri Belaid became its most important martyr, shot down outside his home in Tunis and pronounced dead with four bullets in his body, fired – by who?

A leading member of the opposition Popular Front coalition, he was not short of enemies; Belaid had been threatened countless times and a meeting he addressed at the weekend had been broken up by unidentified gangs. He had often accused Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party, which leads the Islamist-style government, of inciting violence.

The crowds which poured into the streets as Belaid’s body was brought by ambulance screamed out what has become the staple demand of all Arab revolutions – “the people want the fall of the regime” – but this time they were talking about Ghannouchi and his comrades rather than dictator Zin El Abdine Ben Ali who fled the country two years ago.

A familiar story

Rachid Ghannouchi himself called the murder “an ignoble crime” and said that Ennahda was “completely innocent of the assassination of Belaid”. Those behind the killing, he claimed, were “parties whose interests are threatened by the revolution and the democratic transition”. Ghannouchi spent 20 years in political exile, mostly in London, and has frequently suggested that survivors of Ben Ali’s elite super-class are plotting the overthrow of a new and democratic Tunisia.

Thousands of Tunisians, however, converged yesterday afternoon on the interior and justice ministries, accusing them of failing to prevent Belaid’s assassination and holding the government responsible. A general strike has been called for the rest of the week; Ghannouchi has asked for a day of mourning.

Behind yesterday’s killing lies a story familiar to every Egyptian as well as Tunisian; of an elected Islamist leadership struggling to contain inflammatory Salafists while insisting that a secular state will emerge from future elections. Just like the Egyptian administration of Mohamed Morsi, Tunisia’s leaders are trying to frame a constitution which represents both secular groups and Islamist voters – but with little success. If Islam is the “religion of the state”, say critics, then sharia law will apply to all legislation. And why does the draft constitution call for the creation of a “media supervisor” if Tunisia is to maintain its free press?

Meanwhile stories emerge from the Tunisian interior of Salafist groups suppressing university teaching, bullying secularists and terrorising local police officers.

Rachid Ghannouchi, in an interview with The Independent last year, said that he would not resort to Ben Ali’s old methods of locking up and torturing Salafists and that his experience of the British police after the al-Qa’ida bombings in London – of staging no mass arrests but seeking out only those responsible – persuaded him to do the same. But he is going to be hard-pressed to satisfy the crowds in the streets now with talk of an investigation.

A familiar enemy

And the recorded speeches of Belaid – an eloquent lawyer – will be replayed over the coming weeks. Was it not he who said that “there are groups within Ennahda inciting violence” and that “all those who oppose Ennahda become the targets of violence”?

President Moncef Marzouki, a secularist within the coalition, was due to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg when news of the assassination reached him. “Shokri Belaid was murdered this very morning knowing I was going to speak to you,” he said. “This is a message being sent to us which we refuse to accept. We will reject that message – and will continue to unmask the enemies of the state.”

The enemies of the state. Now there’s a phrase to conjure with. More like Ben Ali and Nasser than post-revolutionary Tunisia. Police were using tear gas on the streets of Tunis yesterday with almost the same promiscuity as the cops who tried to defend President Mubarak in his last days. Is Tunisia’s revolution – the “softest” of all in the Arab Awakening – now to turn dark and acquire the fears and economic burdens that are crushing Egypt? Then of course, Libya comes to mind. And Syria. Surely not.

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