Belaid's widow: My husband's death can unite Tunisians

Salma Shukrallah, Sunday 14 Apr 2013

Tunisian feminist Basma Khalfaoui spoke to Ahram Online in the capital Tunis about the assassination of opposition leader Choukri Beleid saying it would return to haunt those who incited it

Basma Beliad (C), the widow of assassinated leftist politician Chokri Belaid, carries a poster of her husband as she's surrounded by journalists, during a demonstration next to the National Constituent Assembly in Tunis, February 11, 2013(Photo: Reuters)

Carrying on the legacy of her slain husband, leftist political figure Choukri Beleid, Basma Khalfaoui is confident his murder will eventually lead to another revolutionary wave.

Khalfaoui, speaking against An-Nahda Party and its inciting discourse, blames the ruling party for her husband’s death, saying Islamists have created an environment of hate and violence that Tunisians will unite against in their quest for a better future.

“We entered the circle of violence early ... Choukri could tell that a violent wave would eventually erupt, but he did not think it would start so soon,” Khalfaoui narrated to Ahram Online.  

Before his death, Beleid was in negotiation with different opposition factions in an attempt to establish a united front. For Belaid, Khalfaoui confirms, this front was deemed essential to protect Tunisia’s core values and principles.

“The front would stand against violence, defend women’s rights, the right to education, among other things ... He (Belaid) believed these were common grounds that could bring together all democratic progressive forces, not only the left.”

Groups under attack in Tunisia   

“During the five or six months prior to his assassination, all opposition groups suffered assaults, their meetings, conferences and activities were consistently under attack," Khalfaoui recounts.

“When [an opposition] party organises a conference, for example, Salafists, An-Nahda members and members of the Associations for the Protection of the Revolution jointly attack it,” explains Khalfaoui.

The Associations for the Protection of the Revolution are different from the “Committees for the Protection of the Revolution,” the latter being the name given to revolutionary groups that were formed after the revolution. All political forces were represented in these revolutionary groups, including Tunisia’s current opposition.

These groups eventually formed the 100-member High Committee for the Protection of the Revolution to formulate election laws and manage the path during the transition period. These committees were then dissolved.

Later in 2012, however, Islamists, including members of An-Nahda Party, applied to register an association carrying the name the Associations for the Protection of the Revolution — the one now functioning.

These Islamist-led associations include also elements from the old regime, some of whom are seen as old regime “thugs.” Khalfaoui believes that these associations are deeply involved in the violence that Tunisia now witnesses.  

Until recently, Khalfaoui explains, the Democratic Patriots Party, of which Beleid was a founding member, together with the Labour Party, were left untouched by the Islamists.

“They are big parties and can defend themselves ... They (the Islamists) knew it.”

According to Khalfaoui, both parties “combated violence by exposing it ... never responding to violence with counter-violence, and that is why they (the Islamists) postponed attacking them ... [because] they knew they were capable of exposing them to public opinion.”

“You need to understand that violence is foreign to Tunisian society and is rejected ... rejected by their logic. And that is why everyone was sympathetic to our case (Belaid’s assassination). Choukri became our call against violence.”

Belaid was targeted   

Before his killing, Belaid had been receiving threats via text message. Threats were directed at him and his family members as well.

“There were phone messages ... threats of all kinds ... threats to him directly; others directed at his friends and family. Some were even made face to face.”

“Sometimes we were sitting in a coffee shop; a man would come over and tell him (Belaid), you talked of so and so (referring to a critique that he had made of an Islamist figure) ... For your own good stop talking about it,” recalls Belaid’s widow.

According to Khalfaoui, many warned Belaid to take care of himself, including President Moncef Marzouki, who Khalfaoui says called Belaid to tell him that he was in danger and should think about getting protection. Marzouki denied ever doing so when he was questioned about the incident after Belaid’s death, she says.

Khalfaoui was able to see that Belaid was becoming the main target of the Islamists four months prior to his assassination, a period in which the inflammatory speech against him intensified quite noticibly.

During this period, “any protests or social action that would take place in Tunisia, they [the Islamists and their allies] would claim that Choukri was behind it, sometimes even financing it.”

Khalfaoui believes that the hate speech that was levelled at Belaid prior to his death made it clear to everyone that he was a target.

“While walking in the street people would come to him to tell him to be careful: ‘They (the Islamists) may harm you, they may kill you,’ they would say ... People knew ... it was clear. The accusation was already there before the assassination.”

An-Nahda Party and orchestrated violence

Although so far four Salafists were accused of murdering Belaid, Khalfaoui holds An-Nahda Party responsible as well.

“Anyone working in politics would know that the Salafist movement is one arm of An-Nahda Party. The strong violent wave [led by the Salafists] stopped suddenly, for example, the moment Ghannoushi firmly stated ‘This violence will stop’ ... That proves that [An-Nahda is connected to this violence], and Choukri stated this publicly, on more than one occasion.”

To Khalfaoui, the violence is orchestrated according to need. It stops and things remain calm for a while, she believes, and then erupts suddenly once an economic or social crisis comes up. In this way, it serves to mask the real economic and social problems that caused the crisis. The same pattern was observed, she asserts, during the constitution and elections debates.

“Violence erupts to distract us ... These [violent events] are not random incidents, they are planned,” she insists.

Khalfaoui further goes to accuse An-Nahda of infiltrating the Salafist movement and using it for its own interests.

“The Salafists never considered Tunisia a land of jihad but one of daawa (preaching) ... Choukri said that once to a member of the Salafist Tahrir Party on TV. He told him An-Nahda Party and the police have infiltrated you.”  

Moreover, speech inciting violence, Khalfaoui says, is very common in mosques led by An-Nahda preachers — more proof that the Islamist majority party plays a direct role in Tunisia’s violent crisis.

“They call them traitors, agents, shameful media, infidels,” she said as she listed a few of the accusations that An-Nahda figures commonly direct at the opposition.

Responsibility for Belaid’s assassination

“An-Nahda are completely and straightforwardly responsible for his assassination; they are politically, ethically and even criminally responsible, for they [as rulers of the country] refrained from providing protection to a man in danger,” says Basma Khalfaoui.

Khalfaoui went on to explain that Belaid had requested the interior ministry investigate threats he had been receiving. The interior minister responded by sending a letter to Belaid’s lawyers saying that there was no danger on his life.

“From a legal point of view, they denied him protection. The state is responsible for protecting its people, especially political figures and opposition members.”

As far as Khalfaoui is concerned, negligence was not the only problem in Belaid’s case. Official incitement was equally to blame. Not only did religious figures and preachers consistently incite against Beleid, government officials did the same.  

“The interior minister personally incited against Belaid ... When protests broke out in Seleyana, the interior minister came out to accuse Beleid not only of inciting the protests, but also of paying them money [to riot], even though Belaid at the time was not even in Tunisia but in Morocco. The interior minister was not even aware of that when he made his accusations.”

One Salafist Imam, further explained Khalfaoui, openly condoned the killing of Belaid, calling him the “enemy of God.” Facebook pages carrying the name of An-Nahda Party also frequently incited against him, she said.

“They called him an infidel on a daily basis, and the threats increased after the formation of the popular front,” she recalls.

Belaid’s death led to the collapse of the government at that time. The interior minister was eventually asked to form a new government. He is now the prime minister of Tunisia.

The stakes in Belaid’s death

Four men were arrested and accused of killing Belaid, but the people who plotted the assassination were never found, says Khalfaoui.

“They (the arrested) had been given orders to carry out a task unknown to them ... Members of the accused group were completely ignorant [of the details] ... And what a coincidence they were all Salafists and members of the Associations for the Protection of the Revolution from Al-Karam city, known to be the most violent of these associations.”

Khalfaoui is certain that Belaid’s assassination was a well-planned operation. It was so well planned that its executors didn’t even know the context in which they were operating: one man was to drive a number of people to the location, not knowing what they were going there for, and so on.

Khalfaoui believes that the main reason for this level of planning was the threat that opposition unity — the Popular Front that Belaid dedicated the last year of his life to forming — could present to the ruling An-Nahda regime.

In the 23 October elections, the opposition was scattered and thus An-Nahda, which garnered 89 seats of 218, was able to form a majority coalition with Marzouki’s party, Congress for the Republic (CPR), and the Ettakatol Party. The Popular Front would have changed the dynamic.

At the time of Belaid’s assassination the situation of An-Nahda was already worsening by the day. Its battle to consolidate power was already over-consuming its energy.

It continues to lose popularity. Its failures color public opinion about it over time. Khalfaoui is certain that as then, so now: opposition unity would spell the end of An-Nahda in Tunisia.

A spark for a united Tunisia

“This wave of violence stopped for now. If we all stand united against violence, after the killing of Choukri, and create a movement [against violence], I am optimistic. I believe we can stop it.”

“The assassination of Choukri was a blow to them. His assassination has awaken all the democratic forces, even those who had left politics, and others who were previously not at all politicised,” Khelfaoui asserts.

“What happened has spread awareness throughout Tunisian society about the dangers we are facing.”

While the polarisation was presented as one between Islamists and secularists, now “the polarisation will be on the basis of rights,” she adds.

“It is becoming clear that there is a progressive project that calls for freedom, equality and women’s rights that stands against a project that is backward and dictatorial.”

Short link: