Fourteen. This was the number of bullets fired into Mohammed Brahmi, a leading secular politician and outspoken opponent of the “Troika” government in Tunis, led by the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party.
Photo Credit: New York Times

His assassination comes just six months after the February assassination of Chokri Belaid, a leading member of the same left-leaning Popular Coalition to which Brahmi belonged.

From the vantage point of the assassins, the timing of this odious act was perfect.  Killed as the country was celebrating the 56th anniversary of the Tunisian Republic, Brahmi’s death occurred just as the members of the National Constituent Assembly were striving to resolve remaining conflicts over a draft constitution.

Moreover, Tunisia’s leaders were preparing to announce the creation of a panel to set a date for parliamentary elections. After long last, it seemed, Tunisia’s much-delayed transition was getting back on track. In the Middle East, and elsewhere for that matter, these are the moments when the most bloody-minded opponents of peaceful political change are most likely to strike.

These sad events have unfolded in the shadow of the escalating crisis in Egypt. Ennahda’s secular opponents have pointed to the June 30 popular protests against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, and the subsequent decision by Egypt’s military to force Mohammed Morsi from the presidency and replace his government, as a model for Tunisia.  Well before Morsi’s government was replaced, some secular leaders in Tunisia were questioning the constituent assembly’s legitimacy and assailing Ennahda for what they claimed was the government’s failure to quickly pursue a full investigation of Belaid’s assassination.

Now, in the wake of this second killing, many secular leaders, particularly those from the Nidaa Tounes party, are demanding the constituent assembly’s immediate dissolution, the creation of a new committee to finish the constitution, and the formation a “government of national salvation.”

It is no coincidence that the demands of Nidaa Tounes and other secular parties in Tunisia echo those from the leaders of Egypt’s Tamarud (Rebellion) movement. The Egyptian Tamarud leaders fully support the plans of Egypt’s military and the new government to revise the 2012 constitution, which had been drafted by an assembly controlled by Islamist groups. Inspired by this chain of events, Tunisian secular leaders created their own Tamarud, and even called for a “million man” march against the Ennahda government. Now, with the vicious killing of another secular leader, they surely feel vindicated.

They also feel scared. The sentiments and actions of Tunisia’s secular opposition, and its vocal leaders, reflect a profound sense of fear regarding the ultimate aims of Ennahda. They wonder if its leader, Rashid Ghannouci, is truly committed to power sharing, pluralism and a “civil” (as opposed to religious) definition of the state, and point to his efforts at talks with Salafist parties as reflecting a “double language,” one part of which is designed to placate secular groups, and the other to pacify more radicals Islamist.

The secular opposition leaders also worry that the recent assassinations are just the tip of a very deep iceberg: namely, the rise of an indigenous al-Qaida movement supported by Jihadists from Algeria, Libya and Mali. Such fears feed the secularists’ campaign to reshuffle the transition deck – to create a kind of “new beginning.”

While such trepidation is understandable, the response of Ennahda’s leaders and supporters to these recent events indicates moderation. Just after Brahmi’s assassination, Ghannouchi asserted that Tunisia “was getting ready to crown its efforts to complete its transition. It was the last candle still lit. The enemies of democracy want to snuff it out, to enmesh Tunisia in the troubles found in other Arab countries of the Arab Spring.”

By “enemies,” Ghannouci is referring to Jihadists. Many of their cells have, in fact, been uncovered by Tunisia’s security forces in recent months. Though the arrests associated with this campaign clearly did not include those responsible for the February assassination of Belaid or those who waged the September 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunisia, some secular leaders grudgingly admitted that the government was finally moving against radical Islamists.

In light of this seeming progress, it is hardly surprising that Ennahda’s leaders now feel their own desperation. They have condemned Brahmi’s killing in no uncertain terms, and the security forces now assert that they have identified the chief suspect in his shooting. But Ennahda leaders argue that demands of secular groups for the dissolution of the constituent assembly not only go too far, they inadvertently play into the hands of the radical Islamists, who surely calculated that one more killing would not only erase two years of hard political negotiations: it would effectively assassinate any hopes of national reconciliation.

Such concerns are legitimate, and even shared by some secular leaders. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia has no military with experience in political arbitration. Tunisia has come so far precisely because, absent a politicized military, none of the protagonists have the option of seeking the support of the army:  in Tunisia, Islamists and secularists must either find a way to talk to another, or prepare for endless battle.

It would be a shame if, at this crucial moment, Tunisians abandoned the difficult quest for consensus and went down the road of escalating popular confrontation. The flame of democratization in the Arab world was lit in Tunisia, in Sidi Bouzid, the very town where Brahmi was born-- and where the 14th of January 2011 “Jasmine Revolution” began.

If Brahmi is a martyr, as his supporters rightly believe, let us hope that his death will remind all Tunisians that, however imperfect, their transition has been an inspiration for the entire Middle East.

Daniel Brumberg is a senior program officer at USIP. Eya Jrad is USIP’s country coordinator in Tunisia.

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