Tunisian protests reignite
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Updated: Monday, April 22, 2013 21:04
As protestors returned to the streets in Tunisia after the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, Arabic professor Ikram Masmoudi watched videos online of the human rights activist who called for the country to engage in more democratic dialogue.
The Feb. 6 assassination of Belaid, whose killers have not been identified, represents a “dark turn” in the revolution, she said. Masmoudi, who moved to the United States a decade ago and makes annual returns to Tunisia, said Belaid is someone she and like-minded individuals in her generation would have supported if she were in her home country.
Belaid incarnated the ideals that Tunisians asked for in the revolution, Masmoudi said.
“The change people were looking for has not been brought by this coalition government,”
Tunisian protests began two years ago and kicked off the Arab Spring revolutions that rippled through North African and Middle Eastern countries. Protestors had common cries for democracy and freedom of speech.
In Tunisia, the Jasmine Revolution resulted in the ousting of longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Free elections held in October 2011 resulted in the election of a coalition transition government led by Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that was widely supported.
Since a religious government has not been historically typical in Tunisia, Masmoudi said, “the revolution has been hijacked” by Ennahda party members who have not developed the demonstrators’ demands for democratic dialogue, economic opportunities and an end to corruption.
Ennahda party leaders include expatriates who have lived in and enjoyed the freedoms of the West for decades Masmoudi said. These leaders cannot identify with the Tunisian masses who called for dignity and freedom, she said.
The governing party members have used the thread of Islam to connect with the people of Tunisia but they have oversimplified the demands of the revolution to a question of their religious identity, Masmoudi said. The average person is religious and subscribed to the government’s promises to improve life, but nothing has changed, she said.
“They did not go through the uprising just to have people come back from abroad to remind them of their Muslim identity,” Masmoudi said.
Junior Adam Breiner, a linguistics major who studied abroad in Tunisia during winter 2011, said he witnessed the demonstrations where people called for employment opportunities, an end to soaring poverty and improvements in security.
Breiner, who has followed Tunisian news since studying abroad, said he believes the country has mostly remained stable.
“People seemed kind of worried that an Islamist party might be more conservative than they would like,” Breiner said. “However people altogether seemed pretty optimistic about democracy.”
It was evident that Tunisian citizens were very aware of what was going on in their country and they used social media to spread news quickly, he said.
Despite the lack of some concrete changes in governing, Masmoudi said Tunisians have experienced more freedom of press and expression under the transition government.
Breiner said the assassination of Belaid will probably encourage the Tunisian government to try to remain moderate.
“If it’s going to change anything, it’s going to make everyone more cautious,” Breiner said.
The revolution in Tunisia was regarded as safer, with less bloodshed than others in the region, such as those in Egypt and Libya, Masmoudi said.
Breiner, who also studied abroad in Egypt in the fall, said he believes Tunisia is safe and stable compared to other nations involved in the Arab Spring.
Immediately after the death of Belaid, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, called for the government to turnover power to technocratic leadership that would not be party-affiliated, but his own Ennahda party denied this request.
Breiner called Jebali’s request to dissolve his cabinet a “knee-jerk reaction” to deal with Belaid’s assassination. The leftist political movement has tried to unify in response to his death.