Tunisia’s face of secularist struggle

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Tunisia’s face of secularist struggle * A potted plant on a knee-high plinth, wrapped in a party flag, marks the spot in Tunis where Chokri Belaid was assassinated.
2:35 AM



A potted plant on a knee-high plinth wrapped in a party flag marks the spot in Tunisia’s capital where the country suffered its darkest hour since the revolution that ousted a dictator a little over two years ago.

It was here, in the car park of his Tunis apartment building, that the charismatic leader of the opposition Democratic Patriots party, Chokri Belaid, a vociferous critic of the ruling Islamists, was assassinated as he was leaving for work on February 6.

The area has become a shrine to the leftist politician and lawyer, whose smiling features, bald pate and black bushy moustache have been tagged on walls throughout the neighbourhood.

A bush next to the memorial is draped with a Tunisian flag and the words “assassination of freedom” are on a sign.

Belaid’s death at the hands of two unidentified gunmen riding a motorbike plunged the generally pacifist country into turmoil.

The opposition accused the ruling Ennahda party of political responsibility — a charge it vehemently denied.

It was at his politically charged funeral that his widow Basma Khalfaoui emerged as a symbol of resistance in her own right.

Walking alongside his coffin, the striking 42-year-old lawyer with the intense brown gaze and shock of unruly silver hair raised her two fingers in the V for victory sign that Belaid used to make at rallies, signalling she was ready to take up the torch.

The image was broadcast around the world, winning her many admirers.  “I wanted to save him, but I didn’t even have the time to embrace him or to say goodbye. So when I couldn’t save him, my thoughts went immediately to saving Tunisia,” Khalfaoui said in an interview at her home between non-stop meetings with visiting politicians and activists.

Sitting on a mattress in a bedroom, dotted with stuffed toys — Belaid left behind two daughters, aged eight and five — she recalls her fear that the birthplace of the Arab Spring and its brightest hope would go down one of two paths — “either a bloodbath or people will curl up in a ball and hide.”

“Straight away, I said, ‘We’re not going to respond to this violence with violence. We’re going to reply with words and reflection.”

Her words immediately sought out the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, which she accused of being responsible for failing to act against a wave of attacks on the opposition, media and artists.

The government has accused radical Salafists of being behind the attack. The hit-man is still on the run, according to Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, but four suspected accomplices are being held.

Khalfaoui stops short of accusing Ennahda directly of the “hit” but questions the nonchalant attitude of the Interior Ministry to the anonymous messages that Belaid had been receiving, warning him to “back off” from criticising Ennahda.

Asked to investigate the threats then Interior Minister Larayedh dismissed the threats “an illusion”, she claims.

The lawyer in her refuses to prejudge the outcome of the investigation but at rallies up and down the country she demands the “truth” about her husband’s death.

She is also trying to mobilise Tunisians against what she calls the “retrograde” project. Belaid defended several cases in which people were accused of offending Islam.

 “We have to choose between a progressive society based on freedom or another project that is retrograde and, which I would call a dark vision for society, where there are no freedoms, where everything is haram (forbidden),” she says.

Many see a potential politician in her but she sees her calling in community activism.  “I want to set up a foundation in Chokri Belaid’s name against violence, mainly political violence,” she says. “I want to avoid another loss for a family, for Tunisia, for all humanity.”




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