Assassination Sparks Turmoil In Tunisia

In Tunisia, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the assassination of an opposition leader Thursday. The turmoil is threatening the stability of the country that up till now was hailed as a bright spot as the Arab world struggles to cope with popular democracy. David Greene talks to Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution about the latest developments.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now let's turn to Tunisia. The revolution there in 2010 began the Arab Spring and a moderate Islamist government is now in power. In many ways Tunisia was seen as the true bright spot, the country where political transition was working. But today the government in that country is facing large protests following yesterday's killing of a liberal opposition leader. In a disturbing development, the interior minister said the 9mm weapon used to kill Mohammed Brahmi yesterday was the same one used in the assassination of the head of his party earlier this year.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution has been following developments in Tunisia from his base in Doha. Shadi, good morning.

SHADI HAMID: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Thanks for being on. Can you tell us about this assassination in Tunisia and why it's significant and has brought such a big reaction?

HAMID: Well, it's the second political assassination in just five months. So it's a very worrying trend. And I think the real concern here is that this assassination could destabilize the entire transition process. And Tunisia is actually fairly close to completing its constitution and to, you know, really setting in place a set of democratic institutions. But now you're hearing more calls for dissolving the government, dissolving the constituent assembly, and taking to the street.

So you're starting to see this real tension between street action and working through the democratic process. And it seems that this assassination, you know, might trigger, you know, whether it's civil disobedience through the general strike that's being called for today, mass protests. So this could spiral into real instability.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about who was killed. Mohammed Brahmi is an opposition leader. He was killed brutally in front of his family. Tell us his role in politics.

HAMID: He was the member of the constituent assembly. He was part of a leftist group called the Popular Front. And he was a very outspoken opponent of the ruling Islamist party, the Ennahda Party. And now the leftist press is calling him a martyr. So they're seeing this really as a call to arms that one of their own was killed, and there's obviously this real tension between secular politicians and Islamist politicians on the other end. So it really fits into this polarizing narrative.

GREENE: And Shadi, are there parallels with Egypt, I mean a place where we saw popular secular discontent actually lead to a ruling Islamist party be overthrown?

HAMID: Well, I think one of the main differences between Egypt and Tunisia is that in Tunisia you have Islamist governing in coalition and not alone. There are two secular parties that are part of this coalition. So that was always seen as one of the more positive aspects of Tunisia's transition. But now what you're seeing is some in the opposition calling for the dissolution of the government altogether, the dissolution of the constituent assembly.

So again, you see this tension between those who are calling for street action and mass protest and working outside of the system and those, namely Islamists and their allies, who are saying stay within the system, the democratic process is nearly complete, the transition must continue. And I think the broader context here is that there's a lot of economic disenchantment. According to recent polls, large majorities are very disappointed with Tunisia's progress in terms of delivering on bread and butter issues.

And I think that for a lot of people the revolution wasn't just about democracy, it was about delivering on social justice, combating poverty, so on and so forth, and they're not seeing real gains on those fronts. So that's why you're seeing, I think, a growing dissolution with a democratic process that may be democratic, but for a lot of people that doesn't get food on the table.

GREENE: Shadi Hamid is the Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center. Shadi, thanks so much for joining us.

HAMID: Thank you for having me.

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