Tunisia's Violence Explained By an Expatriate American

ByKayla Sweeney

Tunisia riveted the world last Wednesday following the assassination of a prominent secularist leader, Chokri Belaid, two years after its people overthrew the country's dictatorship. Although who is behind the murder remains unknown, Belaid's assassination became the most recent example of an ever-growing clash between long-oppressed conservative religious elements and secularist democratic forces and trade unions.

Since gaining independence from France in 1956, only two dictators have ruled Tunisia. The first, Habib Bourguiba, was a hero of the struggle for independence from France and created relatively strong educational institutions based on the French system. He created secularist policies and considered the hijab, a headscarf, a determent to women's — and ultimately Tunisia's — success. He shocked conservatives when he publicly removed the veil of a female supporter in the 1950s. Bourguiba greatly impacted society, as ultra-conservative religious expression became all but taboo.

Tunisia's second dictator, Ben Ali, declared his mentor, Bourguiba, incompetent in 1987 and ruled Tunisia until the 2011 revolution. Ben Ali continued secularist policies, including harsh responses to extremist movements and political rivals. Many in power today are former prisoners and exiles whose pre-revolutionary experience allowed them to flourish in a freed Tunisia.

The current government, headed by the moderate Islamist Ennadha party, is in charge of drafting a new constitution and putting together the foundation of a democracy under which Tunisia can prosper. This unprecedented event has turned into a bitter battle between elected conservative, moderate and liberal forces refusing to compromise. Often, headlines spout the latest dispute between members of one of nearly one hundred political parties.

The populace grows weary of their new government as the transition becomes increasingly turbulent. For Moez Tounsi, a Solutions Specialist at Microsoft in Tunis, the practices of the former dictators under the former single-party system "led to a loss of political and social identity of the Tunisian people … reinforcing a corrupted political landscape where everyone fights for power. 

As the entirety of North Africa begins to quake under extremist forces creeping out of the desert, Tunisia's stability and future is at stake. One Tunisian echoed the ominous perspective of many that, "the only clear thing in Tunisia is that nothing is clear."