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.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images