Yesterday's assassination of Chokri Belaid in Tunis has had a profound impact on the situation in Tunisia, far exceeding the political clout of Belaid's leftist party: the Prime Minister says he is dissolving the government and creating a technocratic Cabinet of national unity; the leftist and some other secular parties are withdrawing from the Constituent Assembly, and the country is rocked by disorders.
Over the two years since the Tunisian Revolution, I think the Western commentariat has been rather complacent about Tunisia, myself included. It's a small country, one that's always seemed peaceful and comfortably Westernized. Riots over wearing niqab in the university, or violent attacks on art galleries, bars, or Sufi saint's tombs seemed to be growing pains, the actions of a radical minority. Egypt, so much bigger and so much more central, was also far more dramatic, with dozens dead just in the latest rounds of clashes.
The secularists were warning that the dominant al-Nahda was a wolf in sheep's clothing, and even came up with a secret video of Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda's seemingly moderate leader, suggesting alternative agendas. My last post on the Salafi-vs-Sufi saints vandalism, on the burning of the tomb of Sidi Bou Said, was something of a personal complaint since "they" attacked the place where I spent my honeymoon. Lately the transition process has bogged down over negotiations for a Cabinet reshuffle, but that, too, seemed routine: God knows, we understand partisan gridlock here in Washington these days.
The pundits are trying to catch up; so are the human rights groups; and some are drawing what I hope are extreme historical parallels.
I think many of us have indeed underestimated the potential for violent conflict in Tunisia. But I also suspect that now, many will veer too far the other way and declare the sky is falling.
So here's the positive side: Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who is a senior figure in al-Nahda, is dissolving the government and appointing an interim technocratic one. THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACIES DO UNDER THREAT. This is also what has visibly not happened in Egypt, where each deepening crisis provokes a "we won. live with it" response.
That's the good news. The bad news is, well, a Lebanese scenario. Assassination (virtually unheard of it Tunisia up to now, especially professional-type hits like this one) begets assassination, which begets civil war. That may seen remote from the beaches of Hammamet and Port El Kantaoui or the bars of Avenue Bourguiba to those Tunisia hands like myself who didn't smell the teargas in Avenue Bourguiba today. It's not the apocalypse, and hopefully won't become so, but it's definitely time to start paying attention.