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.
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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.