In the truest sense, Tunisia is living the very painful birth pangs of a democracy. The assassination last week of Chokri Belaid, the secular opposition leader, has shaken the country to its very core, and has accentuated a deepening political crisis in Tunisia's Islamist-led coalition government.
National shock and outrage has been unleashed in a multitude of ways. Many took to the streets – Mr. Belaid’s funeral procession attracted more than 120,000 Tunisians, and the intensity of emotion was impossible to ignore: sadness, anger, frustration, agony. Clashes ensued outside the cemetery. There is no shortage of accusations flying around as to who exactly killed Mr. Belaid, who received four point-blank shots to his head.
No one has claimed responsibility for Mr. Belaid's death. According to some eyewitness accounts, the gunman escaped on a Vespa motorcycle, and remains at large. Five days have passed since his assassination, and the Ministry of the Interior has yet to announce the launch of an investigation.
It would be a mistake to believe that Chokri Belaid’s assassination was unexpected. Intermittent episodes of political violence, as well as many calls inciting the assassination of famous politicians – warning signs of something bigger to come – have continuously fallen on deaf ears. Videos depicting the existence of violent militias have been circulating on social media for months.
The Islamist-led governing coalition has been the target of popular criticism, especially after its one-year electoral mandate expired on Oct. 23. Many called for the dissolution of the government and a new election, but the ruling coalition announced a cabinet shuffle instead. Due to political wrangling and shrewd electoral calculations, that shuffle was a complete failure.Talks between parties have broken down several times, though they officially are continuing, and the shuffle has not yet come to fruition.
Mr. Belaid’s assassination was, as they say, the straw that broke the camel’s back. The day following the assassination, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who is the secretary-general of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, announced that he would be forming a new technocratic government composed of independent ministers.
The emergency move is being hailed as a bold one by a good proportion of Tunisians. Mr. Jebali threatened to withdraw from the government if his proposal is not accepted – a move publicly opposed by several officials from within his own party.
While there are still many questions surrounding the practicalities and implementation of this proposition, it is a valid and well-grounded idea. A technocratic, caretaker government is just what the country needed from day one.
Tunisia, which has been experiencing grave economic downfall and simmering tensions since the 2011 overthrow of the authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, can no longer afford to go down a spiral of partisan divisions. A non-partisan government can ensure that the country gets to where it needs to be so that it can reach its full potential. Before holding new elections, there must be a better application of the rule of law, a greater sense of security, and more than anything else, stability.
At this very delicate transitional stage, political parties can only muddy the waters by making electoral calculations. Today, political parties jeopardize the country’s future by putting their own interests above the national interest. Today, Tunisians certainly have a taste of what this is like – after all, these volatile partisan tensions are what arguably led to Mr. Belaid’s assassination.
Before inhabiting a house, one must build the house first. The structure of Tunisia’s civil character has been threatened, and a caretaker government is the sole entity that can assure that the administration of a state-based institutional structure is maintained. Economics and law are two respected fields of science, and there are plenty of competent, skilful and seasoned experts in Tunisia to take on this responsibility.
Appointing a new technocrat government will not solve all of Tunisia’s problems. Deeper and more radical reforms must be undertaken, particularly when it comes to more local levels of government. The justice system is as corrupt as it was under the Ben Ali regime, and the mistrusted security apparatus remains largely untouched. But to initiate effective reform, the country must first usher in stability. Without that, Tunisia risks a descent into chaos, and might as well kiss its dream of democracy goodbye.
Wafa Ben Hassine is a Tunisian human rights advocate, writer, and law student.