Belaid Assassination: Targeting the Tunisian Left
Published Thursday, February 7, 2013
After the Wednesday assassination of Tunisian leftist leader Chokri Belaid, opposition leaders are seeking to unify their ranks to stem a tide of violence targeting the country’s left.
On Tuesday evening, Chokri Belaid, a 49-year-old Tunisian opposition leader, appeared on the Nessma TV channel, engaging in a discussion on violence and political assassinations.
At 8 AM the next day, 6 February 2013, Belaid was shot three times outside his home. He is the second victim of politically motivated murders after Lotfi Nakhd, who was assassinated in October 2012 by members of the National League for the Protection of the Revolution (LNPR) in Tataouine.
Belaid became a political activist at a young age. Born in the poor suburb Jebel Jalloud near downtown Tunis, he engaged in secret political action with one of the most famous leftist Tunisian factions, the Movement of Patriotic Democrats (known in Arabic as al-Watad).
He quickly became a rising star during Tunisia’s students’ protests in the early 1980s. After enrolling in university, Belaid became one of the senior leaders of the MPD.
As a young activist, the slain leader was wanted by security services, prompting his retreat underground. In the mid-80s, he was arrested during clashes between students and the authorities. He was then forcibly conscripted with a group of students to serve in the remote Tunisian desert region of Rjim Maatoug.
Belaid was released after General Ben Ali took power, in a move that was intended to achieve a kind of a political détente.
Belaid continued his activism up until 1992, becoming one of the historic leaders of the Tunisian student movement. In the same year, he traveled to Iraq to finish his law degree, and then to France for his postgraduate studies.
In the late ‘90s, he returned to Tunisia where he began his law practice. As a progressive human rights activist and lawyer, he engaged in issues of freedom of expression and trade union advocacy.
The leftist lawyer did not hesitate to defend even the Salafis who were arrested under the Ben Ali regime. Belaid also strongly defended the Gafsa Mining Basin prisoners in 2008, and took part in the protests that began on 17 December 2010. He was arrested a day before Ben Ali fled the country.
Post-Revolution Political Ascendancy
After the fall of the former regime Belaid founded an official party for the MPD. At the party’s first general conference last autumn, Belaid was elected secretary general.
He succeeded in resurrecting the Unified Democratic Nationalist party, of which he was secretary general, and was also among the leaders who founded the Popular Front, a union of leftist and Baathist parties.
Belaid would often give public speeches throughout cities and villages in Tunisia. Recently, al-Nahda, along with Minister of Interior Ali al-Arid, accused him of instigating protests in the cities of Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Kasserine, and Siliana.
Since al-Nahda’s rise to power, Belaid has repeatedly come under attack on social media platforms given his rise as a prominent opposition figure. In a clip that has made the rounds online, a group of Salafis appear to be calling for his assassination.
In addition to his house being broken into last Ramadan, his wife and a number of his friends and associates at the Popular Front confirmed that he had received death threats.
Belaid had famously described the government as subservient to “Qatari neo-colonialism.” He also accused al-Nahda of abetting terrorism to create a climate of fear among the Tunisian public.
On the day before his assassination, he called for holding a national dialogue to discuss violence, and demanded that the government act against outlaw groups that have been targeting freedoms in the country.
A Popular Front Without Belaid
Belaid’s death leaves big question marks for the future of the Popular Front, particularly the Patriotic Democrats. Despite the fact that he was not the oldest of the MPD leaders, he had managed to become one of their most senior.
With his death, the left will lose Belaid’s passion for turning the Popular Front into a major political force that was poised to have a strong showing in the next election. Many polls had confirmed that the front was quickly gaining ground.
Nevertheless, the assassination may push other leftist factions to join the Popular Front. Following the slaying of Belaid, the Front joined forces with the Nida Tunis, or Tunisia’s Call party, to create an opposition coalition.
This coalition, which will bring together many democratic parties, is expected to represent a political force to be reckoned with. The government, specifically al-Nahda, will find itself facing a broad front that combines the radical and center left with liberals.
This political alliance would not have seen the light of day were it not for the assassination of Belaid. To be sure, the Popular Front and the slain leader refused to join forces with Nida Tunis in the past. Yet the murder has unified opposition voices against the government and al-Nahda, which is being held politically responsible by all parties for the current climate of violence.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.