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Arab World

Tensions continue to rock Tunisia

Tunisia remains in turmoil, with people taking to the streets in anger about the murder of an opposition leader. Critics blame the government for having failed to stop the extremists believed to be behind the attack.

Again and again the phone lines are interrupted, the Internet connection is so unstable that emails only arrive sporadically. "This wasn't exactly the most quiet of nights," said DW correspondent Mabrouka Khedir. The country has been in turmoil since the murder of Chokri Belaid. The popular opposition figure and politician of the Democratic Patriots' Movement was shot dead by unknown attackers on Wednesday in front of his house. The largest of the country's unions, UGTT, promptly called for a general strike.

"For months already, the conflicts in Tunisia have been getting worse," Khedir said. UGTT was the driving force during the country's revolution. After four weeks of demonstrations and protests, the people of Tunisia in January 2011 ousted authoritarian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after he'd ruled the country for more than 20 year.

'A two-pronged approach'

A woman wearing a national flag (Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

The funeral procession for Chokri Belaid turned into a massive protest march

In the weeks that followed, new elections saw the Islamist Ennahda Movement emerge as winners. Ennahda is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which during the Ben Ali period was suppressed in Tunisia. The party presents itself as moderate and compares itself to the AKP, the governing party in Turkey. "Ennahda is actually playing a double game," says Berny Sebe of the University of Birmingham. "On the one hand the party portrays itself as a very moderate Islamic party. But at the same time it doesn't do much to prevent its most vocal supporters who are actually very close to the Salafists from attacking members of the opposition."

There are frequent attacks on members of the secular opposition. Students in bars and cafes have also been targeted. The attackers, Sebe said, are most likely aligned with the Salafists, a group of radical Islamists who are often ready to use violence. "But usually these attacks are not punished by the government. This is extremely worrying." In a way, he said, the government is sending a signal that it indirectly supports these radical groups. Ennahda sees the attackers and their supporters as potential voters.

Radicalized by unemployment

Whether it's Salafists or other groups that are behind the murder of Belaid remains unclear. His relatives and parts of the opposition accuse Ennahda, which in turn rejects any accusations. "Still Ennahda is partly to blame, Sebe said. "They've done too little to protect opposition politicians."

 Berny Sebe

Berny Sebe believes Tunisia could still be a model for the Arab world

For months, the opposition has been calling for a new cabinet as the government fails to get a grip on the economic problems. "Unemployment is way above 20 percent but the government has failed to deal with that problem," Khedir said. The cabinet hasn't even come up with a plan how to tackle the issue, she said. Should the crisis continue, tourists will stay away - a major economic factor. The Foreign Ministry in Berlin has, for instance, already advised Germans to be careful when traveling to Tunisia.

The current turmoil might even further kindle the extremist tendencies in the country. "We know from experience that poverty and extremism are closely linked," Sebe said.

Technocrats to the rescue?

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali now has suggested a transitional government of technocrats. "Within Ennahda there's the moderate wing under Jebali," Sebe said. "And then there's the more radical wing, which is much closer to the Salafists." It could be possible that in the long run that second wing will be more dominant, he said.

Yet Sebe said he is optimistic that Tunisia will survive the political crisis. He believes the technocrat cabinet could be the solution. It would calm down the political crisis - and give the government the time it needs to push for economic reforms and work on the new constitution. "I am an optimist," he said, smiling. Tunisia, he says is seen by many a sending a signal into the entire region, he said. It is the country where the Arab Spring started and it's an example for how there can be a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy. "At least so far," Sebe added cautiously.

DW.DE