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Young demonstrators carrying posters of assassinated leftist politician Chokri Belaid shout during a demonstration calling for Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and his cabinet to step down at the National Constituent Assembly in Tunis

The assassination of prominent Tunisian secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid highlights the growing threat of militancy in the country. This threat has the potential to deepen the divide between the secular and Islamist factions within Tunisia and delay the transition to a permanent government. Meanwhile, the Islamist-led interim government in Tunis is attempting to cope with political and economic difficulties that threaten the country’s stability.

Belaid, the secretary-general of the left-leaning Democratic Patriots party, was shot in the neck and head outside his home as he left for work in Tunis early February 6. Though Belaid’s party did not receive a large portion of the vote in the Constituent Assembly elections, his death has spurred mass protests and riots across Tunisia. Many are blaming the ruling Islamist party Ennahda for the assassination because Belaid was an outspoken critic of the party. However, Ennahda’s president has denied that his party was behind the assassination, and no one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Ennahda and the Salafists

Since the fall of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Salafists have become increasingly active in the political realm and some Salafists have staged continuing protests against the ruling Islamist party since its election. Ennahda has had to balance its efforts to incorporate some of the more mainstream Salafists to help quell protests with its efforts to appease secularists suspicious of a party collaborating with Salafists.

Despite Ennahda’s efforts to keep the Salafists at bay, Salafist vigilante groups and the more hard-line Salafists leading particularly disruptive protests have begun adopting more violent tactics in an effort to garner results; these increasingly violent tactics were demonstrated during an attack on a U.S. school and the U.S. Embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012. One way in which the hard-line Salafists can retaliate against the Tunisian government is by further destabilizing the country. It is possible that the February 6 assassination was the work of Salafist jihadists attempting to create problems for Ennahda.

“Belaid’s assassination and the quick spread and popular acceptance of rumors of Ennahda’s culpability reflect the deep mistrust and frustration with which many Tunisians view the transitional government.” – Stratfor analysis

Since the fall of the Gadhafi regime in neighboring Libya, militants and weapons have flowed across North Africa and the Sahel. Moreover, after the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes in 2011, several former militants were pardoned and spread throughout the Sahel and the Sahara. Tunisia does not have the most stable internal security apparatus and, like many of its neighbors, it has difficulty controlling its borders and its southern desert region. Because of this, some militants likely ended up in Tunisia and probably began helping to further the radical Salafist cause and encourage militancy.

Tunisian Salafi Islamists rally in the central town of Kairouan May 20, 2012. (Reuters)

Other threats to Tunisia

In recent months, international attention has been focused on Tunisia’s neighbors – energy exporters Algeria and Libya, as well as tumultuous Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of President Mohamed Morsi. Like Egypt, Tunisia’s Islamist-led government has faced increasing economic and social pressures as the popularly elected transitional government has struggled to address the problems it inherited after Ben Ali’s fall. Unlike the Egyptian government, Ennahda has struggled to form a stabilizing, working partnership with key state institutions or members of the previous regime, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is developing with the Egyptian military. This inability or unwillingness to rely on the state security apparatus as a regime backer has left Ennahda with few useful tools to address the strengthening political opposition and popular forces increasingly calling for significant changes in the make-up of the government, to the detriment of Ennahda’s leadership.

Tunisia’s Ennahda-led coalition government has faced several challenges to its legitimacy in recent months. An increase in protests by the state’s powerful labor unions and unrest in the rural southern regions reflect the ongoing economic challenges facing the region. In November 2012, thousands of frustrated Tunisians took to the streets in the small desert town of Siliana, where a nearly week-long clash with security forces ended after the central government promised to replace the state governor and provide more jobs and economic aid to the region. The incident in Siliana renewed calls for members of the Cabinet to be replaced by technocrats rather than members of political parties, underscoring the population’s frustration with the lethargic political and economic reforms that followed Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011.

A protester throws a tear gas canister back at police during clashes in Siliana November 29, 2012.

Belaid’s assassination and the quick spread and popular acceptance of rumors of Ennahda’s culpability reflect the deep mistrust and frustration with which many Tunisians view the transitional government. The yearlong constitutional drafting process that began in February 2012 has yet to produce a working draft, despite a referendum vote expected in April. Meanwhile, political infighting is increasing between Ennahda and the secular and Salafist blocs that also make up a portion of the parliamentary vote. The presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June will probably reflect the same popular and political discontent with the current ruling coalition in Tunis. As a result of Belaid’s assassination, four opposition parties have already left the Constituent Assembly and the Popular Front has called for a general strike and government resignation. If the violence surrounding Belaid’s death continues, or if the unrest emboldens greater political and social opposition to Ennahda, both the constitutional drafting process and the scheduled June elections could be delayed.

Tunisia’s challenges are not unique in the region. The Islamist governments and movements empowered by popular support during the Arab Spring have made difficult transitions from illegal or opposition political parties to governing parties trying to appease angry and expectant populations that are spread across difficult geography. As the first state to experience the mass public unrest that shook North Africa in 2011, Tunisia has served as a case study for the challenges of inexperienced Islamist parties transitioning into ruling states beset by structural, economic and social problems. The deepening divide between the secularists and Islamists in Tunisia, combined with the growing threat of extremism by Salafist jihadists, will make it increasingly difficult for Ennahda not only to govern Tunisia, but also to manage the tentatively scheduled transition of power.

The analysis Tunisia Assassination Highlights Stability Threat is republished with the permission of Stratfor.

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