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Major Political Tumult in Tunisia, ‘Poster Child’ for Arab Spring

February 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In the wake of the assassination of top Tunisia opposition leader Chokri Belaid, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced the dissolution of the government. For more on the assassination and volatile state of politics in Tunisia, Margaret Warner talks to Borzou Daragahi of the Financial Times from Cairo.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more, I’m joined by on the assassination and the political situation in Tunisia, I’m joined now by Borzou Daragahi, Middle East and North Africa correspondent for The Financial Times. He’s traveled to Tunisia frequently, but is Cairo tonight.

Borzou, well, welcome back.

First of all, tell us about Chokri Belaid, a little more about him. Who was he and what was this Popular Front that he led?

BORZOU DARAGAHI, The Financial Times: He was a very vocal leftist politician, part of a coalition called the Popular Front that included communists and other leftists.

He was very active against the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which was overthrown two years ago, and replaced by the current government eventually, which is dominated by Islamists. And he’s been very active against this government as well. He’s very vocal, always on TV and the radio, and very militant in favor of labor rights and other core leftist issues.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, his brother was heard today — we just ran a clip of him — blaming the Ennahda government or factions in it.

On the other hand, the interior minister was quoted as blaming religious zealots. Help us sort through this.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It sort of points to the poisonous atmosphere right now within Tunisia’s political scene.

You have a secular liberal leftist opposition that is accusing the Islamist-dominated government of giving free rein to various, more extreme Islamist groups, such as the puritanical Salafis, to commit various acts of vandalism and escalating violence.

And so you have a situation where this gentleman, Mr. Belaid, was killed just hours after he appeared on television accusing the Ennahda government of being behind the violence. So it’s a very, very tense situation. Not only did his brother get on the air and blame the Ennahda party for the killing, but his wife, his widow, after the killing — hours after the killing took to the streets in a demonstration and explicitly blamed the Ennahda government as well.

It was a very powerful and a very volatile situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, has the government been playing kind of a double game, that is, with the Salafis, as well as against the secular opposition, or they trying to steer a course between them?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: I think the accusation is that the government has been playing footsie with some of the more extremist elements within the Islamist camp, sort of giving them a wink and a nod to say that, hey, we’re on your side, while on the other hand condemning their violent acts.

If you talk to the leaders of Ennahda, they will never say that they support the more extremist groups. But there is this accusation. And there is this sense that lawlessness has increased in Tunisia under the Ennahda government, and that the targets of the violence have been the — the targets of the violence have been the symbols of the secular elite and the secular opposition, such as art galleries and hotels that serve alcohol and universities and so on.

And so the worry is, the concern is that Ennahda is allowing these Salafist extremists, the more militant ones, to serve as sort of their shock troops, making changes on the ground that they’re unable to make vocally and publicly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Tunisia was the most Western-oriented, outward-looking of all these countries caught up in the Arab spring. What does this say, this incident say or portend about the very stability of Tunisia’s transition now?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It’s a very, very tough situation right now. And it’s a very important one.

Tunisia is often held up by the international community, by donors and international advocates of the Arab spring revolution as a sort of poster child, as a model for other countries such as Egypt or Libya or even Yemen and Syria, as a potential model for them to follow.

And so, you know, what has happened here is that there’s been a major rupture, a major unprecedented event. You had one secular politician killed last year in a riot, in a sort of melee in the south of the country. But this was a targeted, very professional assassination in the heart of the capital. Something like this just doesn’t happen in Tunisia.

And it has precipitated a major crisis for Tunisia and its international backers.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Borzou Daragahi of The Financial Times, thank you very much.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It’s been a pleasure.