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Tunisia on Edge as Protests Continue

Mischa Benoit-Lavelle reports from Tunis that Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior is under scrutiny following the killing of leftist politician Chokri Belaid.
Supporters of the ruling Ennahda party walk past a Tunisian standing guard during a demonstration in Tunis February 9, 2013. Thousands of Islamists marched in Tunis on Saturday in a show of strength a day after the funeral of an assassinated secular politician drew the biggest crowds seen on the streets since Tunisia's uprising two years ago. About 6,000 partisans of the ruling Ennahda movement rallied in support of their leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who was the target of angry slogans raised by mourners a

TUNIS — As politicians debate Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali's proposal to replace Tunisia's ministers with non-partisan technocrats, Tunisia stands on the brink of its third transitional government in just over two years.

This latest change has been precipitated by the killing of leftist politician and human rights lawyer Chokri Belaid. Belaid was shot in the head and neck outside of his home Wednesday morning by two masked gunmen who escaped on a moped. The killing was quickly construed as a political assassination, a nearly unprecedented event in Tunisia which drew thousands into the street on Wednesday and tens of thousands to Belaid's funeral on Friday.

The consequences of Belaid's assassination are still playing out in the streets and in the meeting rooms of political parties. But a question that has been only rarely asked in the days following the event is who exactly is responsible the killing of the leftist leader.

While the opposition has heaped blame upon the shoulders of Ennahda for “negligence” and “complicity,” in the words of one opposition party representative, they have stopped short of saying that Ennahda or its operatives were directly responsible. Instead, they have blamed the attack on radical groups, meaning either the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, volunteer groups who tend to hold pro-Ennahda views, or radical Salafist groups.

Ennahda has taken the blame not for ordering the assassination, but for a perceived negligence. Indeed, according to colleagues, Belaid had received text messages with death threats in the weeks before his killing and had reported as much to the interior ministry.

“The responsible party is clear: it's the government that closed its eyes, that let this happen, who knows full well that there are groups who take aim at political personalities. The government and the party in power know full well that there are political personalities who were threatened, they know full well that Belaid was threatened, and in spite of this they did nothing,” said Maya Jribi, the secretary-general of the secularist Republican Party.

At other times, opposition figures have gone further, hinting that if Ennahda was complacent with regard to certain groups it was because of an ideological complicity. One Republican Party politician before Belaid's killing characterized Ennahda's attitude toward Islamist violence as “indulgent.”

But it's hard to see what Ennahda would stand to gain from Belaid's assassination: Though he was a vehement critic of the party, he was not a particularly powerful figure in the opposition. His Movement of Patriotic Democrats party has only one seat in the Constituent Assembly and the coalition of which he was a part, the Popular Front, brings together the relatively marginal leftist-socialist parties, and is nothing like the force to be reckoned with that is Beji Caied Essebsi's old-regime leaning centrist coalition.

A more plausible possibility is that Ali Laarayedh, the Ennahda member who is minister of the interior, simply does not have total control over Tunisia's security forces — that even if he wanted to guarantee Belaid's safety he would not be able to effectively do so.

Earlier this week, the Tunisian jihadi Salafist leader Abou Iyadh gave a rare interview with radio station Mosaique FM, in which he accused Laarayedh of not being master in his own house, saying, “Laarayedh doesn't really control his ministry, and we are certain of that.” Despite containing no incitement to violence or sensitive information, the interview was banned from airing by order of the Justice Ministry, though a copy later leaked online.

There have been other indications of insubordination within the ranks: At a rally of the national security forces' union two weeks ago, thousands of officers chanted in unison for the interior minister to 'degage' or leave office. In the past year, transfers of high-ranking personnel have been blocked by union strikes or protests.

And in spite of the fact that the ministry is run by a former political prisoner who has declared himself committed to installing a humane security force, abusive practices continue, apparently against the orders of ministry administrators. At protests, riot police continue to beat demonstrators after they've been subdued and human rights groups have reported sporadic instances of torture. On Friday, copious tear gas that was released by police next to Belaid's funeral was blown into the procession itself, a public relations disaster for the government.

In spite of these signs of internal disorder, the interior ministry remains mum about any administrative issues.

“The minister of the interior is something of a black box. We really don't know how it functions,” said Emna Guellali of Human Rights Watch, criticizing the ministry for what she described as its “opacity.”

Guellali, who has made reform of the security forces a central concern of Human Rights Watch's activities in Tunisia, stated that troubling signs such as contradictory information coming from the ministry “give one something to think about” concerning the ministry's operations.

If the Constituent Assembly does indeed vote to kick Tunisian politicians out of office and put apolitical experts in their place, the incoming interior minister may need more than a degree in criminology to get the country's security apparatus in proper working order.

Mischa Benoit-Lavelle is an American freelance journalist based in Tunis. Before becoming a freelancer, he was a senior editor for Tunisia's first English-language news website, Tunisia Live. He is currently the English-language correspondent from Tunisia for the French news network France 24.

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