Tunisian Opposition Leader's Slaying Prompts Protests
Thousands of Tunisians are protesting in the streets after the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, a critic of the moderate Islamist group that dominates the country's government. Steve Inskeep talks with Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A Tunisian politician received death threats in recent days. Chokri Belaid was in a high-profile position. He was among the leaders of a group of politicians urging Tunisia to remain a secular state. That brought him into conflict with religious parties. Despite the death threats, his family says Belaid refused to limit his activities, and as he left home this morning someone shot and killed him.
Let's talk about the aftermath with Shadi Hamid. He's of the Brookings Doha Center. He's in Tunis, Tunisia's capital. Welcome back to the program.
SHADI HAMID: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: I understand that after this politician was shot there were protests in the center of Tunis, and you were there. Is that right?
HAMID: Yeah, yeah. There were crowds gathering outside the Ministry of Interior. And it was pretty packed. It's one of Tunisia's main thoroughfares. I just walked outside now and you could feel that aftermath of the teargas. I don't know when exactly that happened, but people were covering their faces. But the protests have stopped at this point outside the ministry.
INSKEEP: So, a secular politician was killed. His supporters were out in the streets and protesting for some hours. Is it known who's responsible for the killing?
HAMID: We don't know yet. There's a lot of accusations being hurled back and forth, including on Tunisian TV. So, there is really a sense of political polarization and some are using this for political gain, as I suppose it's to be expected.
INSKEEP: Some of accusations, if I'm not mistaken, are going against the ruling party in Tunisia right now, which is described at a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda.
HAMID: Exactly. I actually met with the former prime minister, Beji Essebsi, who is now the leader of the secular opposition. And he didn't directly blame al-Nahda, he did say that Nahda has created an environment of polarization and they fail to condemn political violence. So, they have, in some sense, contributed to what led to the assassination. That's what you're hearing from a lot of secular politicians.
INSKEEP: OK. So, we know that these accusations are being made. There's not any evidence and the ruling party we should note has denied it. But what does all of this say, this killing and the aftermath, say about the political situation in Tunisia where the Arab revolutions began in 2011?
HAMID: Well, there's a bigger theme here, and that's ideological polarization between Islamists and liberals. Tunisia's interesting because it was supposed to be the one place that was doing it better. You had a coalition government, where Islamists were (unintelligible) a liberal party and a leftist party as part of a coalition. You have a relatively homogonous population. You don't have much of the history of political violence. You have high literacy and high educational attainment, relatively speaking.
So, that gave people I think a lot of hope that Tunisia could be an exception. But the bottom line is that two sides that have very different ideas about the role of religion in public life. And we should note that Tunisia has a strong secular tradition. You have a strong French cultural influence. So, in some sense, these debates become much more existential about the way society is organized.
INSKEEP: Meaning, are we a European country? Are we an Arab country? Are we an African country? Are we a Muslim country? Those questions?
HAMID: Exactly. Tunisia does have some identity issues, and Islamists were suppressed for so long, and now for the first time they have a chance to promote their ideas. So, there's really a question of will Islamization happen in Tunisia, like it happened in the rest of the Arab world? And that's still very much an open question.
INSKEEP: Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Doha Center, is in Tunis, Tunisia, where a leading secular politician was murdered today. Mr. Hamid, thanks very much.
HAMID: Thank you.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.