Millennium Post

Killing Arab Spring in its cradle

Mohamed Brahmi, the liberal politician who was assassinated outside his home in Tunis last Thursday, was born in Sidi Bouzid, the same town where a desperate fruit vendor set himself on fire in December 2010, triggering the Tunisian revolution - and the Arab Spring.

The Islamist party Ennahda, which governs Tunisia, has blamed the killing - as well as the assassination, nearly six months ago, of Chokri Belaid, a prominent human rights advocate - on a young weapons smuggler who has ties to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

But Ennahda itself bears much of the blame. It should be recognised, and condemned, for being the radical party that it is: a party that has created a climate for escalating fundamentalist violence that threatens the lives of liberal and secular activists.

The Western media have portrayed Ennahda as an innocuous voice of moderation, but it has been pushing for a constitution - one Brahmi vocally opposed - that would lay the foundations for a repressive Islamic state.

Earlier this month, at a rally here supporting the ousted Islamist president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, Sahbi Atig, the head of the Ennahda bloc in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, warned: ‘All those who dare to kill the will of the people in Tunisia or in Egypt, the Tunisian street will be authorised to do what it wants with - including to shed their blood.’ Party leaders condemned his remarks, but commentators have understandably connected them to the death of Brahmi, who had called the overthrow of Morsi a ‘correction in the trajectory of Egypt’s revolution.’

Since it attained independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has had some of the region’s most progressive laws relating to women and families. Ennahda is trying to undo those laws. Amel Grami, an intellectual historian at Manouba University, whose campus was besieged last year by Salafi activists opposed to women’s equality, says the Arab Spring has ‘triggered a male identity crisis’ that has strengthened the ultraconservative positions taken by Islamist parties. In Tunisia, he has noted, fundamentalists have called for girls as young as 12 to don the hijab and niqab, veils used by observant women. An Ennahda lawmaker has called for ‘purification of the media and purification of intellectuals,’ while another Ennahda deputy, a woman, has urged segregation of public transportation by gender. Some Islamists have spoken of legalising female genital mutilation, a practice largely foreign to Tunisia.

Many Tunisians I interviewed in the last month - in the political opposition, in academia, in the women’s movement - told me that they felt threatened. ‘You are all Mohamed Brahmi,’ one mourner chanted on Thursday evening, among those weeping outside the slain activist’s home.

‘The entire left is under threat,’ a young female activist in the southern city of Sfax, whose party is in the Popular Front coalition to which Brahmi belonged, said earlier this month. Just last week, a law professor and women’s rights activist, Sana Ben Achour, warned of the real possibility of violence. ‘We must be very vigilant,’ she warned me. Neighbouring Algeria plunged into such bloodshed in 1991, after the military took control of the government to prevent Islamists from taking power. The ensuing civil war lasted more than a decade.

To prevent Tunisia from going the way of Algeria, all anti-fundamentalist groups must unite - which they are beginning to do - and they will need the sort of international support Algeria’s secular democrats never received. Western governments must pressure the Tunisian authorities to protect those at risk. But so far, the European Union and the United States, focused on Syria and Egypt, have mostly turned a blind eye.

Mourad Sakli, director of the International Festival of Carthage, a cultural event, said the killing of Brahmi would only strengthen ‘our determination to defend our rights to culture and to life, our right to be different and our right to free thought.’ I attended this year’s festival on 20 July, in a packed amphitheater here, where a crowd of young people and families - some women in miniskirts, and some in hijabs - sang jubilantly with the Algerian singer-songwriter Cheb Khaled until 1 in the morning, in Arabic, French and a little Berber: ‘We will dance, and we will love. C’est la vie.’
That mood of joy has been replaced by an atmosphere that the Tunisian newspaper La Presse described on Sunday as ‘insurrectional.’

Dozens of delegates are boycotting the Constituent Assembly, the body charged with drafting a new constitution, whose legal mandate technically expired last October. They want it to be replaced by a ‘national salvation government’ that can call new elections.

One delegate, Nadia Châabane, stood amid hundreds of female demonstrators, some cloaked in the Tunisian flag, who faced off against a smaller, all-male phalanx chanting ‘God is great’ and waving the black Salafi flag. ‘Islam has survived here for 14 centuries,’ she told me. ‘It is not under threat. The solution to our problems is economic, not religious.’ On Saturday, Brahmi was laid to rest before some 30,000 mourners. One of them, a female lawyer who scaled the cemetery’s walls after finding the entrance blocked, said, ‘We’ve been taken hostage by religious fundamentalists. Now we the people have decided to take back our country and our revolution.’ Will the West have the courage and vision to help her, and others across North Africa, who are speaking up for freedom and human rights through peaceful protest? If not, the Arab Spring may die in the country where it was born.

The author, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis, is the writer of the forthcoming book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories From the Fight Against
Muslim Fundamentalism
On arrangement with NYT syndicate
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