On 25 July 2013 Mohamed Brahmi, a Tunisian socialist and nationalist politician and founder of the secular People's Movement Party, was shot dead in front of his wife and children outside his home in the Tunis suburb of Ariana. Although he had already resigned from his party, just over two weeks prior to his assassination, and despite having a number of friends and associates in the governing Ennahda Movement (Renaissance Party), it was not enough to save him.
Brahmi had fully and publicly supported the July coup by the military in Egypt which had toppled the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, saying that "Egypt opens a brand new page in its history". This was in complete contrast to Ennahda's support for President Morsi, its condemnation of the coup and its encouragement of demonstrations, in Tunisia also, against Egypt's General el-Sisi, the military commander who had removed President Morsi. The Government's stance was hardly a surprise as Ennahda is the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia.
The moderate membership of the party and most of the present leadership of Ennahda describe themselves as "Islamic" but to their opponents and to not a few of their supporters, "Islamist" is a more appropriate description if only because, by choice, that is where they would wish to see the party stand. A person like Mr Brahmi was too secular and too left-wing.
Ennahda very quickly condemned Mohamed Brahmi's killing, calling it "a cowardly and despicable crime", but although few of their critics believe the leadership of the party to be in any way involved with Mr Brahmi's death, the same is not thought of some of their more hard-line supporters and the party's headquarters in Sidi Bouzid, the victim's place of birth, was set on fire by protesters.
Mr Brahmi's murder occurred at a rather inconvenient moment for the Government, for although large-scale organised strikes and protests had been regularly taking place since the shooting on 6 February this year of Chokri Belaïd, a (far) left-wing critic of Ennahda and staunch opponent of the Salafist Movement, the Government had been trying to get out some good news regarding Tunisia's vitally important tourist industry.
The Tunisian National Tourist Office on 25 July was announcing that there had been a significant rebound in visitor numbers, especially from the UK. Tourist numbers had taken a drubbing after the fall of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali but latest figures showed an increase of a third for the year to June over the same period for 2012. The Government was keen to show evidence that Tunisia is safe and welcoming to foreigners, at least in the holiday resorts and cities where a much increased police presence was being made clearly visible.
Now a continuing political crisis threatened to combine with an economic one if visitors were going to be scared away by the country's continuous unrest. Tourism usually contributes about seven per cent of Tunisia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is the country's second-largest foreign currency earner. It employs about 400,000 directly and supports an estimated two million people in total, just under a fifth of the nation's population. With unemployment exceeding 17 per cent and "youth" unemployment roughly 33 per cent, the Government continued to do everything it could to attract back the vital West European market.
Despite Government efforts and assurances, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the country's largest union with 517,000 members, called for an avowedly political general strike (grounding the national airline) and "weeks of action". On 30 July, Ennahda's Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, finally gave in to opposition demands and announced that there will be elections this coming December.
The secular UGTT remains deeply suspicious of the Ennahda administration accusing it of allowing radical Islam to grow in power unchecked and no doubt being confirmed in their stance after several Union offices throughout Tunisia suffered a spate of firebombing attacks with little redress. It also accuses the Government of incompetence in tackling economic and security issues, pressing its Islamist agenda without sufficient popular support and placing its supporters in key positions throughout the country.
Ennahda cannot escape from censure on these issues. Emphasizing its moderation may simply have been recognition of the fact that in the 2011 Assembly Election, the party secured 37 per cent of the vote on a rather disappointing 51 per cent turnout of the electorate.
With 89 out of 217 Assembly seats, admittedly far more than any other party, the result highlighted more the plurality of political parties seeking office after decades of one-party rule. Ennahda was obviously the most and best organised political movement in the nation. Even now, the numerous other parties need to stop splitting hairs and combine to build effective political units or any future election may only throw up a similar situation.
The Election result therefore, allowed Ennahda to form a government but not a carte blanche to force an Islamic/Sharia Law agenda on the country and its failure to write a new constitution, which was meant to be completed by October 2012, has unsurprisingly only heightened distrust.
Fortunately, all sides in Tunisia are determined to avoid the turmoil being witnessed in Egypt, where a Muslim Brotherhood government, determined to hold on to power and force its anti-secular, Islamist agenda at any cost, has recently been overthrown. It's thought that the new constitution, without the controversial references to Sharia Law, will shortly be submitted for approval and if this is the case, better reflects a country that is not noted for extremes.
Stability and a return to better long-term growth cannot come soon enough. The country recorded a rather disappointing 3.00 per cent increase in GDP (4.5 per cent had been hoped for) at end of Q2, a 6.6 per cent Budget Deficit and a Current Account Deficit of 8.1 per cent, although unemployment has improved slightly to 15.9 per cent.
To help matters on the stability front, Prime Minister Laraayedh declared on 27 August that the hard line Salafist, Ansar al-Sharia movement is a "terrorist group" and said that the Government now had convincing proof that members of the group were responsible for the killing of both politicians. He went on to say:
"There will be no respite in the struggle against terrorists and against those who take up arms against citizens and institutions of the state. We will ensure Tunisians have a future characterised by freedom and wellbeing."
Mr Laraayedh went on to confirm that the Government would finish its work on the constitution and electoral law by this October. These announcements were backed up on 29 August by the Defence Minister, Mr Rachid Sabbagh, introducing "buffer zones" by the military in the south of the country along the borders with Libya and Algeria.
Although large demonstrations against the Government continue on an almost daily basis, the contrast between the Tunisian Revolution and what has happened since in Libya, Egypt and now Syria, could not be more stark. For that, the Government surely deserves much credit - and a breathing space.