Assassination Attempt in Tunisia Highlights Mounting Challenges

TUNISIA-facebookJumbo TUNIS — Hours before the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave its highest-profile honor to a coalition of Tunisian groups that had helped ease the country’s path to democracy, unknown gunmen attacked a member of Tunisia’s Parliament, firing seven or eight shots at his car as he drove to work in a seaside town. tunisia-attack The assailants missed their target. But the attack, on Thursday, was an urgent reminder of the violence that still menaces Tunisia’s transition, one of many challenges to the country’s significant and celebrated political gains. The threat against prominent political figures, by shadowy militant groups, is among the government’s deepest worries: Twice in the last two years, high-profile assassinations have thrown Tunisia into political crisis. This year, the country has also grappled with an unprecedented wave of jihadist violence, including two large-scale attacks on tourists that killed at least 60 people and helped plunge the economy into recession. In a country still wrestling with its authoritarian past, the attacks have provoked anguished arguments about how much power the government and the police should wield to confront the threats. Other debates — about the economic direction of the country, and its ability to come to terms with a legacy of past abuses — have exposed divisions between old elites and newer political forces empowered by the uprising in late 2010 against the 23-year dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The challenges are testing not only the young government but also the compromise between secular and Islamist parties that is at the heart of Tunisia’s inchoate political system and is frequently held up as a model for the Arab world. Talk of Tunisia’s success is frequently attributed to its relatively peaceful transition, especially set against the violent struggles of other countries in the region, including Syria, Yemen and neighboring Libya. That contrast often overlooks an arduous road that began in December 2010, when a Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi lit himself on fire, in an act of despair that resonated throughout the Arab world. Days after Mr. Bouazizi died in January 2011, mass protests forced Mr. Ben Ali into exile. The Islamist Ennahda Party won the most votes in parliamentary elections that October but fell short of a majority. The group promised that its own Islamist program would not overwhelm the country’s deeply ingrained secular politics, and it also promised to build, as one Ennhada official put it, a “charismatic, democratic system.” But a backlash against Ennahda paralleled events in Egypt, where huge demonstrations led to a military coup in 2013 against the year-old government of President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, now banned. The four groups honored with the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday helped Tunisia avert the civil strife that led to hundreds of deaths in Egypt. They helped Tunisia negotiate its way through the most serious threat to its nascent transition: the crisis that followed the assassinations of two opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in 2013. Giant protests that summer threatened to topple the Ennahda-led government. But the Islamists refused to cede power until they completed their mandate to pass a new Constitution. The impasse began to destabilize the country as the government grappled with jihadist militancy, popular unrest and strikes, and a worsening economy. After months of sometimes heated negotiations, a deal, concluded in December 2013, forged a new contract between the political parties, including a timetable for a democratic transition. The Islamist government agreed to step down and hand power to a caretaker government that would oversee the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections in October and November 2014. The adoption of the Constitution, in January 2014, was seen as a high point in the transition, producing a charter forged from robust debates between Tunisia’s disparate political currents, and that enshrined democratic principles and a separation of powers. Compromises by two men — Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, and Beji Caid Essebsi, one of the founders of the secularist Nidaa Tounes party, and Tunisia’s current president — ended the impasse, analysts say. Despite that achievement, the basis of their compromise remains fragile: “It is very much a consensus from the top — often against elements of their base,” said Issandr El Amrani, who oversees the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group. As both leaders manage the pressures from within their own ranks, the government has been criticized for lacking a sense of direction and dynamism as well as for failing to tackle urgent issues, Mr. Amrani said. “This worries people.” The assassination attempt on Thursday, he said, could have been a sign of this tension, “the bigger underlying elite rivalries in Tunisia that are working themselves out.” But the motives for the attacks and other threats against political figures have been murky, given Tunisia’s overlapping rivalries. The Parliament member who survived the assassination attempt on Thursday, Ridha Charfeddine, 63, is a member of Nidaa Tounes and also a prominent businessman who owns a soccer team. The gunmen, riding in the back seat of a white car, attacked him in an industrial section of Sousse, on Tunisia’s eastern coast, according to the Interior Ministry. Sousse is the same beachside town where a 23-year-old Tunisian gunman slaughtered 38 people, mostly British tourists, in June. It was Tunisia’s worst terrorist attack in living memory. “This is not an isolated incident,” Mohsen Marzouk, the general secretary of Nidaa Tounes, said in an interview with a local radio station after the gunfire. He said the gunmen belonged to an organized movement, but he did not identify it. As the political violence and jihadist attacks have unnerved the public, they have also given rise to fears about the state’s reaction. The police have reasserted themselves in response to the attacks, despite growing reports of human rights abuses and a lack of coherent strategy to reform the security services, Mr. Amrani said. In the aftermath of the attack on the tourists in Sousse, the government also started closing dozens of mosques — prompting concern that Mr. Essebsi’s secular government, with its strong connections to the old dictatorship, was reviving the crackdowns on Islamists that occurred during Mr. Ben Ali’s rule. The government closed at least 80 mosques, though none of them had any connection to the gunman in Sousse, officials said. Source