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Radical Turn in Tunisia? Arab Spring on Wayward Course

Is rampant street violence coming to Tunisia too? Could be, as opposition leader Chokri Belaid was shot and killed in front of his home in Tunis today. An outspoken critic of the  Islamist party Ennahda, which is widely considered moderate but has at times been indulgent of the radical Salafis, Belaid had received several death threats in the weeks leading up to his murder. Things had been especially heating up recently, the New York Times reports:

In recent days, Mr. Belaid accused the Islamists of carrying out an attack on a meeting of his supporters on Saturday. “At the end of our meeting, a group of Ennahda mercenaries and Salafists attacked our activists,” Mr. Belaid said.

After word of the Mr. Belaid’s killing drifted through Tunis, large crowds of protesters gathered outside the Interior Ministry shouting, “Shame, shame Chokri died.”

Less media attention is paid to Tunisia—the birthplace of the Arab Spring—than to the much larger Egypt. And just like in Cairo, media reports tend to focus on the political struggle between Islamists and moderates as the primary driver of events. While the political dimension of the killing of Chokri Belaid is important and is perhaps the main lens through which the West views the unrest, it’s just as important to note that Tunisia’s economic woes have persisted since the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As in Egypt, the economic crisis was the driver in the overthrow of the old regime and the failure of the new government to improve conditions is undermining post revolutionary stability and could plunge the country into new upheavals.

Western observers love to turn foreign revolutions into morality plays: good moderates and pluralists, bad radicals and so on, but the key to the region these days is the ugly truth that none of the factions contending for political power has any idea how to satisfy the masses. The Middle East is in a development trap, unable to grow in ways that would make life bearable for its huge youthful population. Fifty years ago radical socialism and communism would be the ideological beneficiaries of these trends; today it is radical Islam. But regardless of the ideological flavor of the week, the reality is that when government can’t deliver the kind of life people would like, the alternatives are often chaos as order breaks down or ruthless repression as an imperfect and unpopular order is imposed. Armies, tough and smart kings and radical Islamists may, under today’s conditions, be the people most capable of maintaining order, and governments shaped in various ways and to various degrees by these elements may well be what emerges from the chaos we see in the region today.

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