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Soldiers help mourners carry the coffin of slain opposition leader Chokri Belaid during his funeral procession towards the nearby cemetery of El-Jellaz, where he is to be buried, in the Jebel Jelloud district of Tunis

For some in Tunisia, the degree of resemblance between the assassination of Tunisian liberal opposition leader Chokri Belaid on February 6, 2013, and the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005, is disconcerting. With the anniversary of Hariri’s death upon us, Tunisian politicians grappling with a solution to the current political crisis should view the comparison with Lebanon as a cautionary tale of what is at stake if they cannot reach a compromise.

Lebanon and Tunisia occupy opposite ends of the spectrum in the Arab world: Lebanon is the epitome of religious sectarianism and nationalism, while Tunisia is the most homogenous of the Arab countries in its linguistic, religious, and ethnic composition. Yet, despite this stark sectarian contrast, they are currently the two Arab countries that are most similar. Both are small, green, agricultural countries that share roots from the Phoenician empire. Both governments are independent and are typically classified as modern, and tourism occupies an essential place in the economic foundation of both countries.

Beyond these fundamentals, similarities can be drawn between Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. The Lebanese revolution broke out in 2005 against its Syrian occupier which, for many years, hollowed out the Lebanese democratic system and made it into a caricature, a shell through which Damascus appointed the top three Lebanese officials: president, prime minister, and speaker of the parliament. The Jasmine Revolution erupted on December 17, 2010, and culminated in the expulsion of President Ben Ali, who similarly ravaged the Tunisian democratic system and made it a mere decorative façade for a horrifying dictatorship.

In both countries, the assassinations of key political figures resulted in the splintering of the political system. The assassination of Rafiq Hariri split Lebanon’s political class into two conflicting camps: the April 8 coalition led by Damascus-leaning Hezbollah and the April 14 coalition led by the Future Movement, which is opposed to Syrian and Iranian hegemony. Similarly, in Tunisia, it would appear that the assassination of Chokri Belaid is on its way to further polarizing the already divided political spectrum: the February 8 comprising liberal, leftist, and modernist forces, and the February 9 coalition led by the Islamist Ennahdha party, which includes a number of Islamist parties such as Hizb al-Tahrir and some Salafi groups.

“Tunisia today stands trembling at the brink of Lebanon’s difficult path.” – Khaled Chouket

It did not escape Tunisia experts that the signs of political polarization began to emerge after Ennahdha gained the seat of power. The division is rooted in the stark difference of opinion over the nature of the state, polarizing Tunisians between the “religious state” camp and the “civil state” camp. It is likely that the conflict between these two camps will be open, severe, and perhaps bloody through the months and years to come.

Demonstrators holding a poster of assassinated politician Chokri Belaid shout during a rally in Tunis, February 11, 2013. (Reuters)

Prior to the announcement of Ennahdha’s victory in the October 2011 parliamentary elections, the Islamist party was eager to market its moderation and its desire to form a coalition with moderate secular forces. To the dismay of these forces, however, as Ennahdha gained power, the party began to show a unilateral and hardliner face, leading to the loss of many of its friends and allies. Ennahdha forced those who were close to the party to doubt its true intentions, and to come to believe that its true goal is the establishment of an authoritarian regime that elevates Islamic religious slogans rather than one that contributes to the establishment of a civil democratic state.

For months, up until the assassination of Chokri Belaid, Tunisians have been living in the shadow of a government dominated by Islamists, as dangerous events, decisions, and policies are enacted. These acts have accumulated in such a way that the current public impression is that the Ennahdha party waited years for its opportunity to rise to power, and it will not surrender that role easily.

A supporter of the Tunisian Hizb Al-Tahrir Islamist party holds a placard at a rally in Tunis February 14, 2013. The placard reads: "Islam - our solution, your problem." (Reuters)

Over the past year, Tunisia has witnessed frequent visits by several extremist religious preachers from Egypt and eastern Arab countries, who have introduced notions of “female circumcision” and “enforcing the hijab among young girls” into the local media, concepts otherwise foreign to Tunisian society. This has caused panic among the liberal and progressive forces, who feel that this represents an acute threat to the modern achievements that Tunisia accumulated over the past fifty years.

The level of fear within Tunisian civil society has reached a climax with the killing of Belaid at the hands of those close to the Islamist government, and the establishment of the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution. The leagues resemble the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the way that they employ violence against the opposition, prohibit opposition parties from meeting, and threaten many senior political leaders with assassination.

Tunisia today stands trembling at the brink of Lebanon’s difficult path. The future of its political life depends on whether or not the intellectual and political elite will succeed in addressing and ameliorating the fault lines that have emerged. In doing so, they must find a way to preserve Tunisia’s character that, in the past, has been able to encompass both Arab-Islamic identity and a modern progressive political program. If this fails, Tunisia will slip into a pattern of more violence, assassinations, and further sectarian and ideological polarization.

This post was originally published on Fikra Forum.

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Khaled Chouket

Khaled Chouket is a Tunisian writer and journalist.

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