That the Arab Spring has turned distinctly chilly throughout the Middle East is no surprise. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself as committed to anti-Semitism and antagonistic to democracy as its detractors feared. In Libya, militant Islamist factions continue to hamper Libya’s development, and make Benghazi and much of Libya unsafe. Syria remains embroiled in a civil war, which will see no winner emerge who will do anything but undermine regional security. Through all this bad news, however, diplomats could cling to Tunisia. The small, relatively wealthy North African country was the place where the Arab Spring first erupted. Even though Islamists had won Tunisia’s first elections, they appeared to hew a more moderate line, albeit with hiccups along the way.
Earlier today, Tunisia time, that changed:
A prominent Tunisian opposition politician was shot dead outside his home on Wednesday, in a killing the prime minister condemned as a political assassination and a strike against the “Arab Spring” revolution. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said the identity of the killer of Shokri Belaid, a staunch secular opponent of the moderate Islamist-led government, was unknown.
Belaid, who died in the hospital after being shot in the capital Tunis, was a leading member of the opposition Popular Front party. The government has faced many protests over economic hardship. Hampered by declining trade with the crisis-hit euro zone, it has struggled to deliver the better living standards that many Tunisians had hoped for.
And it says Al Qaeda-linked militants have been accumulating weapons with the aim of creating an Islamic state. Police, who demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office last month, say they do not have the appropriate resources to deal with the threat from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and domestic Islamist militants who have easy access to weapons from neighboring Libya.
Let us hope that the Obama administration’s response to the cutting down of a prominent secular politician will not be to supply Tunisia’s Islamist rulers with F-16s or other advanced weaponry. And let us hope that the Obama administration and the State Department have a plan to prevent the Al Qaeda threat from taking root in Tunisia, and that the plan is not simply to sit on the sidelines and let the worst scenarios develop, something which has contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise in northern Mali and utter chaos in Syria.