Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Felix Tusa

GET UPDATES FROM Felix Tusa
 

No Echoes of the Arab Spring in Tunisian Protests Over Death of Chokri Belaid

Posted: 13/02/2013 18:49

The funeral of Chokri Belaid, the Tunisian opposition leader who was assassinated outside his home on 6 February, took place at the Jellez cemetery in Tunis on 8 February. An estimated 20,000 people awaited the arrival of the funeral procession, whilst tear gas from a nearby confrontation between police and some rioters washed over them.

Since the assassination, Tunisia has been in a state of political turmoil. Protests on the main streets in downtown Tunis, and in other towns throughout Tunisia, have been accompanied by a general strike (8 February).

There have also been violent clashes between the police and rioters. The security forces have used tear gas, and rocks thrown by some individuals killed one police officer.

This series of events has been portrayed in many Western news sources as an echo, if not a repeat of the Arab Spring.

However these protests have not been like the events of two years ago. What has been occurring in Tunisia can be split into two separate groups: honest protesters calling for the removal of a government that they believe encouraged the murder of Chokri Belaid, and rioters attempting to benefit from the state of crisis.

The dichotomy was most evident at Chokri Belaid's funeral. Tens of thousands of people gathered at the cemetery in Tunis to great his body and pay their respects. They sung the national anthem, and chanted for the 'fall of the regime' - an echo of the chants sung in 2011 under President Ben Ali, who fled the country during the Arab spring.

The protesters were of all ages; Tunisians protest with their families. Meriem, a 23 year old Tunisian women, told me the night before that she would only attend the funeral if her mother felt up to it. Her mother was experiencing breathing difficulties, and they weren't sure if she should risk being subjected to tear gas. In the end, they decided to go anyway.

An hour before the body arrived, the sound of gas canisters being fired was heard, like the sound of fireworks being let off. Five hundred metres away from the cemetery, some youths were attempting to loot the shops that were closed due to the strike. The police were called and responded with gas and batons.

As the wind blew the tear gas over the crowd, the chanting stopped whilst people covered their faces, and closed their eyes. Even from a distance, tear gas has an unpleasant stinging effect around the nose, eyes and mouth.

At one point an errant gas canister flew into the crowd. It is unclear whether it was fired by the police, or thrown by a rioter. People near by ran to get away, but other shouted to 'stay calm', lest a stampede occur.

Finally, as the body was brought into the cemetery, two cars were set on fire by the rioters behind the hill that over looks the Jellaz area. The effect was that Chokri Belaid's wake was set to the background of thick black smoke. The crowd, once again, covered their faces and closed their eyes.

As army helicopters flew overhead, and more gas was fired - one falling right by where Belaids's body would be laid to rest - the crowd hissed in the direction of the rioting. It is unclear whether they were disapproving of the police, or the individuals who were clashing with them.

This is not the Arab spring. Zubeir Ben Hmida, a 33 year old chauffeur, complains that the young men throwing rocks at the police were "thugs". "No one knows who killed Chokri Belaid. But these thugs do not care. They just want to fight".

Mr. Ben Hmida worries that honest protests will be obscured by a small number of violent confrontations by individuals who do not care about Chokri Belaid. It is a worry that is apparently shared by many Tunisians. They fear that this state of chaos could derail Tunisia's budding democracy; for despite its many successes since the Arab Spring, the transitional government has not yet even finished writing a constitution.

The concerns are serious, as Tunisia's political scene is fragile. The protesters who patiently allowed tear gas to wave over them at the funeral may yet be undermined by a more criminal element in Tunisia.

 
FOLLOW UK POLITICS