Democracy Lab

Martyrs of the Revolution

If history is any guide, today’s assassination in Tunisia could set off a dangerous revolutionary dynamic.

You don't have to be a Middle East scholar to know that the big story from Tunisia today is bad news for that country's revolution, which many saw as the bright light of the Arab Spring. An unknown assailant has killed opposition leader Chokri Belaid, the head of an alliance of secular leftist parties known as the Popular Front. He was also a prominent critic of Ennahda, the Islamist party that's now in charge of Tunisia's post-revolutionary government. Belaid's killer shot him three times as he was leaving his home. (The photo above shows Belaid's father and wife mourning him in a Tunis hospital.)

Tunisia has been swept by political violence in recent months, much of it seemingly engineered by religious conservatives against liberal secularists. Just a few days ago, Belaid was accusing Ennahda of giving a "green light" to political assassinations. So it's easy to see how his killing could exacerbate the existing tensions within Tunisian society.

This is, potentially, not only bad news for Tunisia. It also bodes ill for broader democratization within the Middle East. Because of its relatively sophisticated political culture and its comparatively robust institutions, Tunisia is regarded by many onlookers as the Arab Spring country with the best preconditions for success. If it stumbles, the likelihood of a positive outcome for other democratic aspirants, like Egypt or Libya, starts to look even shakier.

So let's hope that Belaid's killing doesn't throw the Tunisian revolution off track. But if history is any guide, Tunisia's leaders will need all their powers of persuasion to ensure that tensions don't escalate. Past revolutions have often been punctuated by political killings, which all too often have marked the start of spirals of radicalization.

In the larger sense, of course, "political killing" is precisely what many revolutions are about -- the channeling of violence for the purpose of far-reaching social change. (No single event guaranteed that the English Civil War would go on more than the execution of King Charles I.) Revolutions are grand theaters of emotion, so the murder of a symbolic political figure can serve as a powerful catalyst for action. And you can always bet that there will be power-hungry politicians around to seize the moment.

Perhaps the best example of this dynamic occurred during the French Revolution, when the moderate revolutionary Charlotte Corday took it upon herself to attack the leading Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat, stabbing him fatally in his bath in July 1793. Corday was caught and guillotined shortly thereafter. But Jacobin-in-chief Maximilien Robespierre, portraying Marat's assassination as an example of what faced insufficiently vigilant revolutionaries, used the event to consolidate his hold on power -- and as a trigger for the Reign of Terror that followed.

From the modern-day perspective, perhaps the most fascinating thing about Marat's death is the way that his supporters quickly turned him into an evocative icon of revolutionary passions. The entire National Convention (the revolutionary parliament) turned out for his funeral. Jacque-Louis David's famous painting of the dead Marat in his bath became the emblematic work of pro-revolutionary propaganda. Zealous Jacobins even cut out Marat's heart and hung it from the ceiling of one of their revolutionary clubs. Even the Soviet Union memorialized Marat, naming streets and a battleship after him.

The Soviets, indeed, understood a thing or two about the uses of the cult of revolutionary martyrdom. When vengeful anti-communists executed 26 imprisoned revolutionaries in 1918 -- the "26 Baku commissars" of subsequent legend -- the Bolsheviks immediately stylized their deaths into an epic of heroic political sacrifice.

But perhaps the most fateful (it not fatal) escalation of that same year took place after Fanni Kaplan's attempt to kill the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, on August 30. Kaplan managed to hit him with two of the three shots from her Browning pistol, but Lenin survived the shooting. Like Corday, she was executed soon thereafter -- and Lenin, again following his hero Robespierre, used the occasion to launch an all-encompassing "Red Terror" aimed at counterrevolutionaries (which conveniently included many of his own enemies on the Left). Lenin's campaign swept away basic civil liberties for the better part of the next century.

A similar dynamic reveals itself again and again. On May 1, 1979, it was the assassination of Morteza Motahhari, Ayatollah Khomeini's beloved student and confidant, that prompted one of the major turning points in Iran's Islamic Revolution. Motahhari was one of the most important intellectual architects of Khomeini's plans for clerical rule, a role that made him a prime target for the radical leftist groups that were determined to shape the revolution in their own image. Motahhari was also something of an ersatz son for Khomeini, so it's hard to overestimate the emotional impact that his death had on the elderly ayatollah.

The revelation that a Marxist guerilla group was behind the killing confirmed Khomeini's deep-seated suspicions about the revolution's secular and leftist supporters, and prompted him to move ahead with his plans to defend clerical rule against them. Just four days later, he issued a decree establishing the Revolutionary Guard, a new armed force beholden directly to him. Later waves of attacks on officials of the new regime in the years that followed (especially a 1981 bombing that killed several top leaders, including Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, another one of Khomeini's favorites) triggered brutal reprisals and contributed to the deepening of the revolutionary police state.

By such grim standards, the portents for Tunisia are not the worst. The first reaction from Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, a member of Ennahda, gestured in the right direction: He condemned Belaid's killing and declared those behind the murder to be "enemies of the revolution." He has since dissolved the government, promising to set up a new one that will be more inclusive -- only to have his own party reject that plan, creating even more uncertainty. Meanwhile, that hasn't done much to placate opposition protestors, who stormed Ennahda offices around the country. Belaid's brother has blamed Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi for the hit.

As things stand now, it appears unlikely that Tunisia will break out into civil war; so far the country's leftists have shown little inclination to violence. The more probable risk is that this could mark the start of a nearly insurmountable split within the revolutionary camp, with serious consequences for Tunisia's long-term instability. Ominously, the protestors now battling police in the streets are already calling for a "second revolution."

Needless to say, political killings are always bad. But stable societies at least have the institutions to cope with the consequences. (For all the controversy over the assassination of John F. Kennedy, no one could seriously argue that the American political system was turned on its head by his death.) Societies undergoing revolutionary transitions, by contrast, are subject to extreme volatility, and the drama of a high-profile murder can quickly push things in a bad direction.

One can only hope that Tunisia's politicians succeed in moderating the passions likely to be aroused by Belaid's assassination. If history is any indication, they will need to move carefully. It's vital that the authorities do everything they can to ensure a proper investigation of the death, that they show that they have no intention of exploiting it for their own political gain, and that they will not allow a culture of impunity for violent acts (including those committed by fellow Islamists). Indeed, Belaid's death could even have a positive influence if it serves to push Ennahda to crack down on its own extremists.

This is, of course, all much easier said than done at a time when emotions will be running high on the street. Recent events in Egypt demonstrate how quickly a revolutionary government can lose legitimacy when it cracks down on protests. Let's hope that Tunisia can still make the grade.


Democracy Lab

The First Lab Results Are In

Democracy Lab is celebrating its first anniversary. Here are some of the things we've learned over the past year -- and where we're headed in year two.

Last spring I spent an exhilarating week prowling around Burma as the people of that long-benighted country prepared for their first genuinely free election in decades. Well, some of the people, at least. As elections go, the one that took place there on April 1, 2012 was a very limited affair, with only a handful of seats in the country’s military-dominated parliament up for grabs.

But no one really seemed to care about that. What mattered was that, for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, Burmese were getting a chance to have a say over their rulers -- and it was no surprise when those who had the opportunity voted overwhelmingly for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the lionized (lionessed?) leader of the long-persecuted opposition, to represent them in their country’s national assembly. In a Rangoon slum, I watched as ecstatic supporters of her National League for Democracy rallied for their local candidate. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and should remind us all just what a marvelous thing a vote can be.

Elections, of course, do not a democracy make -- as we’ve learned again and again over the course of the past year. Burma has made small steps toward freedom, but it’s still a giant leap away from democracy. That will require the creation of solid institutions (such as independent courts and a civilian-controlled military) and an authentic general election. In that respect, some of the countries of the Arab Spring, which now have true elected governments, are much farther ahead. Yet they too -- as the recent violence in Egypt demonstrates -- still have a long way to go. And that’s not even to mention the bloody tug of war in Syria.

The past year, in short, has been a busy time for Democracy Lab. Over the past 12 months we’ve scrutinized uprisings, elections, and civil wars. We’ve eavesdropped on activists and we’ve peeked over the shoulders of leaders at work. We’ve surveilled secret policemen and celebrated unsung heroes. We’ve explored the immense problem of corruption and its potential to frustrate the rule of law. We’ve examined the power of the drive for dignity (Francis Fukuyama) and the longing for property rights (Hernando de Soto).

There’s been a lot of ground to cover. The world remains a place of raucous transformation -- and yet we still have a hard time figuring out precisely how such change occurs. We’ve got masses of data. We’ve got illuminating analyses. And we have countless historical examples to mine -- not least a raft of insights from former South African president F.W. de Klerk. Yet the collapse of regimes (and the triumph of unlikely underdogs) continues to test our powers of prediction.

Democracy Lab has made it our mission to illuminate the mechanisms behind democratic transitions around the world. That’s why FP and the Legatum Institute got together to bring Democracy Lab to life back in January 2012. As our original mission statement explained, we aim to embrace the complexity of the subject by tackling it from every possible angle.

In that respect, we owe a particular debt to the contributors to Transitions, our collective blog. We suspected that our reporting on transitional societies would be greatly enriched by adding more voices from within them, and we haven’t been disappointed. Burmese activist turned political scientist Min Zin has guided us through the tumultuous changes in his home country with a distinctive mix of empathy and analytic rigor. Mohamed El Dahshan has reported on events in Egypt and around the Middle East with signature passion. Juan Nagel and Francisco Toro have dissected the ups and downs of their native Venezuela with sarcastic verve. Jackee Budesta Batanda has given Ugandans a voice of their own at moments when the views of outsiders seemed to overwhelm the story. And Endy Bayuni has written eloquently on the challenges that still face democracy in Indonesia.

To that same end, we’ve also made a point of embracing collaboration wherever we can. Our colleagues at the Legatum Institute have supplied some of our chunkiest reporting on economic topics, ranging from the preconditions for prosperity to the reasons for stalling growth in Argentina. (Our Economics Editor Peter Passell, who works at Legatum, has commissioned several unlikely hits -- such as this one on the bright future of the Philippines and the disappointments of Vietnam.) We’ve also forged a joint venture with Princeton’s Innovations for Successful Societies, which has allowed us to mine its wealth of rigorous case studies for valuable lessons on governance and political change.

We’ve learned a lot along the way: for example, that our understanding of the mechanics of transitions is bound to be incomplete if we focus only on the heroes -- we also have to delve into the motives of the darker characters as well. We’ve learned that the success of liberalization depends not only on outright victories for democrats but can also assume more subtle and ambiguous forms. We’ve learned that coming to terms with a bloody past can actually be complicated by a democratic present. And our study of relevant examples vividly demonstrates that small, practical compromises can often have outsized effects.

But we haven’t learned only from our reporting. We’ve learned just as much from you, our readers, who have engaged intensively with the stories we’ve tried to tell. (Some of you, indeed, have gone from being fans to contributors.) To our surprise, we’ve discovered that you’re more than willing to embrace in-depth coverage of stories that are often missed by more traditional media. So, for example, our debate on the nature of economic growth in Africa (here, here, and here) has met with a remarkable response. The same was true of our pro and contra on last fall’s elections in Georgia (here and here). Off-the-beaten-path topics such as an Egyptian activist’s defense of blasphemy and a profile of “private diplomat” Carne Ross also resonated with readers.

Perhaps one of the most notable successes was the project we dubbed “16 Ways to Save Burma,” which offered a set of policy prescriptions for the future of the country. The enthusiastic response it received (above all within Burma itself) has encouraged us to launch a new series of in-depth reports on a select group of countries (Burma, Kenya, Libya, Ukraine, and Venezuela). We’ll eschew cursory glances at the latest headlines in favor of penetrating looks at the political and economic systems in these societies and their prospects for future liberalization. “Lab Reports” will debut next week.

But we don’t want to stop there. Please let us know what you think. Send us tweets. Let us know your preferences for coverage on our Facebook page. And feel free to email us directly with comments and suggestions at our dedicated address ( After all, that’s how democracy is supposed to work. We’ll all be richer for it.

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