Dispatch

A Murder in Tunis

The assassination of a leftist politician has thrown the poster child for the Arab Spring into chaos.

TUNIS -- On the night of Feb. 5, prominent leftist politician Shoukri Belaid went on a popular Tunisian television station to denounce the political violence that had targeted him, his party, and other opposition groups. He gave at least one specific example where Islamists, allegedly associated with both the ultraconservative Salafi movement and the governing al-Nahda Party, recently attacked a meeting of his United Democratic Nationalist party in the interior town of El Kef. He said that security forces watched the attack take place but did nothing.

The following morning, Belaid was shot in the head and the chest as he was leaving his home. In the hours that followed, Tunisians took to the streets around the country to protest the escalating political violence and the slow pace of reform. Protesters gathered in front of the cordoned-off Interior Ministry in the capital, demanding a new revolution. There were widespread reports of clashes between police and protesters -- including in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Sidi Bouzid, where protests first began in Tunisia. Al-Nahda Party headquarters in towns in the interior of the country were attacked, despite the fact that leaders from the party strongly condemned the assassination.

The political repercussions of the assassination were immediate. In a national televised address, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced that the current government will be dissolved and replaced by a temporary cabinet made up of technocrats. He offered few other details, and it is unclear whether his promise will placate critics.

Belaid was a leader in the leftist community -- especially, as a member of the biggest student union, among the youth. A lawyer by training, Belaid defended key opposition figures during the regime of deposed autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In one high-profile case, he defended a group of students who went on hunger strike in 2009 after they were arrested for their criticism of the education system. More recently, he was an important figure in the establishment of a coalition of leftist groups opposed to the government.

So far, it remains unclear who was behind Belaid's killing. What is perfectly clear, however, is that political violence in Tunisia is getting worse: The country that was once the poster child for the Arab Spring has been the scene of increasing street clashes as citizens express their frustration with the unfulfilled promises of the revolution. In this chaotic environment, it's not unusual to hear Tunisians retreat to conspiracy theories to explain the lack of order, and accusations against Islamists or ex-regime figures -- depending on the source's political views -- are common.

Belaid's murder was far from the first headline-grabbing act of violence in Tunisia. On Sept. 14, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis was attacked shortly after the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Since then, Tunisian politicians of all stripes have been subjected to attacks. Abdelfattah Mourou, a vice president of al-Nahda who is generally considered a moderate Islamist, was assaulted by ultraconservative Muslims on at least two occasions. Members of the country's biggest trade union, the UGTT, have been attacked by al-Nahda supporters belonging to a group called the "Committee to Protect the Revolution." There have also been numerous attacks on artists and journalists, allegedly by violent Islamists. At the same time, dozens of historic shrines across the country have been torched, with some alleging that the attacks were carried out by Salafis (although one Salafi leader, Abou Ayadh Al-Tounsi, recently denied Salafi involvement in either the Sufi shrine burnings or the U.S. Embassy attack).

These incidents, capped by the killing of Belaid, all call into question the Tunisian government's ability to maintain security. A large part of the problem is that Tunisia's security forces, which once served as an integral part of Ben Ali's police state, have not been reformed. At a recent conference on police reform organized by civil society groups, many complained that the state's security responsibilities have been deferred to "Committees to Protect the Revolution," and other pseudo-militia groups -- an allegation similar to that made by Belaid in his final TV appearance.

Meanwhile, it is unclear how much control the government actually has over the security forces. Interior Minister Ali Laareyedh, an al-Nahda member who himself was imprisoned and tortured in the building where he now works, has seemingly not been able or willing to clean house. It's one of the main grievances against the new government: It is no accident that Tunisians chose to vent their rage at Belaid's death by protesting in front of the Interior Ministry as well as police stations around the country.

The angry protests also highlight a broader discontent among Tunisians. Unemployment is still higher than it was prior to the revolution, hovering around 20 percent. The families of those who were killed during the protests that led to Ben Ali's overthrow still demand justice for those responsible. The Constituent Assembly, elected in October 2011 and tasked with writing a new constitution, regularly holds sessions with less than half of its relatively well-paid members in attendance. Given the widespread frustration, Belaid's death may well be a tipping point for Tunisia. 

In the aftermath of Belaid's death, whoever emerges in the driver's seat in Tunis will find themselves under more pressure to meet Tunisians' demands. Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda's leader, felt obliged to deny his party's involvement in the killing, telling Reuters, "Is it possible that the ruling party could carry out this assassination when it would disrupt investment and tourism?"

While many will expect the powers that be in Tunis to investigate this crime and punish those responsible for Belaid's death, the anger on the street is clearly about much more than just one political assassination. The credibility of the revolution itself is on the line.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Love Is a Battlefield

Are the Taliban using sex to fight America?

HELMAND, Afghanistan — Mohamed Wali had been laboring in Iran for seven months when the local preacher knocked on his family's gate back home in Helmand province early one morning. Wali's widowed mother opened the door. "Call your son home," the preacher said. "There is an organization that is helping young men get married."

In this highly conservative country, particularly in its southern parts, marriage largely remains the only sexual outlet for youth. And with unemployment hovering around 35 percent and dowry prices as high as 50 times the average monthly income, marriage -- and therefore sex -- is becoming increasingly difficult to afford. For 19-year-old Wali, there was no hope at home, not in Greshk, the most violent district in the country. He chose the long path -- to labor his way to marriage in Iran. Others may not.

Frustrated with the government for failing to create jobs or control dowry prices, many of Afghanistan's young men remain vulnerable to Taliban recruitment. In highly volatile areas like Helmand, the insurgency is not an alien force but often a cousin or a next-door neighbor, deeply entrenched and easily accessible. The Taliban, meanwhile, has ramped up its psychological operations, positioning itself as an alternative to everything that's wrong with the Kabul regime and selling the battlefield as an outlet for pent-up rage. Sex, of course, makes the Taliban's sales pitch that much tougher to resist -- 72 virgins await the insurgent lucky enough to die in the line of duty.

In Afghanistan, marriage is seen as a way to tame young men in the height of their energies. Sudden bursts of anger at home -- kicking the dinner bowl after an argument, slamming the door -- are smiled upon as youth expressing their desire for marriage. An acknowledgement of the link between sexual energy and violent energy is written into Afghanistan's cultural DNA. But science, too, speaks to that link.

The idea that sexual frustration is liable to boil over into aggressive expression dates back to Sigmund Freud, who theorized that Eros (love) and Thanatos (aggression or the death instinct) were the two basic drivers of all human behavior. Today, scientists still acknowledge the destructive potential of desire. "Sexual frustration is simply part of the potent human drive to survive and reproduce," said Jeff Victoroff, a professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California and an expert on the psychology of terrorism.

But it's not simply the lack of intercourse that leads to violence, according to Victoroff. It's the more basic instinct to survive and reproduce. "When a youth perceives that his options for success in the larger domain of survival and reproduction are constrained because of a political issue, one reaction -- depending on individual temperament -- will be to seek alternative pathways toward that deeply innate evolutionary mandate in the company of political extremists," he said.

The Taliban has turned this instinct into an advantage -- offering dignity in this life and carnal rewards in the one that follows. But it's not just about sex. Far from a pure insurgency, the Taliban is increasingly positioning itself as a shadow government, promising to provide for citizens' basic needs where the government has not. Bashing the corruption of Kabul has become a central pillar of the group's psychological warfare -- which one senior Afghan official recently called 80 percent of the Taliban's fight.

The Taliban rejects the idea that it is exploiting vulnerable youth. Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesman, says his movement is fighting an economically asymmetric war and does not have the resources to help youth get married. Even so, he admits that "if we reach a position where we can help youth in finding jobs and tackling the excessive expenses of weddings -- we certainly will do that."

In urban areas like Kabul, there are other outlets for sexual energy. The religious Khatem Alnabieen University, for example, has an exercise program for that express purpose. "Exercise on daily basis is a recommendation of Islam, but here at the university it's a requirement," says Abdul Hadi Mohseni, chancellor of the university, which he claims was built with $13 million in cash remaining from the anti-Soviet jihad. "A person needs to free the pent-up energies; otherwise it will lead to inappropriate temptations."

Phone relationships offer another outlet. In addition to constant texting, young couples whisper into phones late into the night. Cell phones have seen an exponential rise in the country, with more than 17 million cell-phone subscribers today compared to 2002, when less than 1 percent of Afghans had access to telecommunication. And for those without a steady companion, there is always a young voice at one of the many phone-company call centers that have sprung up in the last decade. "The boys who work at the call centers have the most number of girlfriends," smiles a young man who works at Etisalat, one of the country's thriving cellular networks.

But in deeply traditional rural areas like Helmand, it's usually marriage or nothing. The creative program that helped Wali get married originated not from the loose coffers of the U.S. counterinsurgency operation or the Afghan government, but a partnership between a little known NGO and an Afghan youth organization. Over four months last year, Comfort Aid International, an Islamic charity based out of Texas, registered more than 50 couples from across Helmand province. It relied on local networks -- such as the Afghan Youth Movement -- as well as local clergy and tribal elders to compile a list of young men who lacked the resources to marry. The charity chose to target Greshk because the community had suffered tremendously over the past decade and the dire economic situation made its young people extraordinarily vulnerable, according to Khalil Parsa of the Afghan Youth Movement.

After Wali's name appeared on the list, the preacher came knocking. In his seven months in Iran, Wali had saved only $1,000 -- a quarter of the dowry he was supposed to pay his bride's family. But the organization offered to cover the wedding costs for 50 couples, and urged brides' families to forgive -- or significantly reduce -- their dowries. Wali had struck gold.

For all the optimism about the program, however, only about 38 couples showed up on the day of the ceremony. Many remained skeptical of the scheme -- or fearful that the ceremony itself, supported by the government, could be a prime target for the insurgents who remain very active in the region. For the grooms who did attend, there was more bad news: The families of the brides were unforgiving despite their promises of leniency over the dowries. In Wali's case, they insisted on the full $3,500 dowry.

With his savings from Iran and the proceeds from a plot of land he sold, Wali managed to pay $2,500 upfront. "On the morning of the wedding, the family wouldn't let go of the bride at the beauty parlor until we came up with the remaining $1,000," Wali's mother explained with a bitter smile.

Nevertheless, the wedding went ahead as planned. Decorated in flowers and ribbons, 38 vehicles lined up in front of the mosque in Greshk. In a brief ceremony that included speeches, a simple lunch, and the signing of marriage certificates, 38 couples walked out of the mosque, boarded the vehicles, and began a new life.

For the young men, the odds that this new life will include fighting with the Taliban are now greatly reduced. Not only did the mass wedding meet a fundamental need -- marriage -- but increased familial obligation will make it more difficult to join the insurgency. The mass wedding has also had a dampening effect on the price of dowries. "The people are a bit worried now that such mass weddings [are] ruining the market for their girls," said Sayed Saleh, one of the organizers of the wedding, with a smile. "They want to get them married soon."

Jawad Jalali/AFP/Getty Images