The first assassination in post-revolutionary Tunisia occurred today. Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and Tunisian opposition leader, had been critical of both the Islamist-led government and of the violence perpetrated by radical Muslim Salafist groups. He was was gunned down as he left his home.

Protests in the North African nation originally ignited the Arab Spring, and it has since been seen as a model for the Arab world’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. The killing of Belaid is likely to increase societal tensions, and Tunisia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouch called the assassination a “terrorist act.” Belaid was shot point-blank several times.

Belaid was a high profile politician who had been particularly outspoken against groups affiliated with Tunisia’s largest political party, the Ennahda Party, that is infamous for seeking out remnants of the old dictatorship regime. The Ennahda is an Islamist party that was originally inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It is the most well-organized party in Tunisia, and it has politically outdistanced all of its more secular competitors.

Tunisia

Belaid was a member of a leftist alliance of parties known as the Popular Front. Islamist militants had disrupted a rally that Belaid had led over the weekend. The rally was part of a string of political meetings that have been disrupted by gangs loyal to Ennahda.

French President Francois Hollande has condemned the killing by saying, “This murder deprives Tunisia of one of its most courageous and free voices.”

Tunisia’s Islamist-led government is seen as being too moderate by that country’s more radical elements. Salafist groups have labeled the government as an oppressor for its refusal to release some 900 militants arrested for various acts of violence. Two of those detainees have since died in their cells after hunger strikes.

This has put Tunisia’s Islamist leaders in a problematic position. To the secular elite, the government is too indulgent regarding Salafist groups; yet, the Salafis accuse the government of being too indulgent regarding the secularists. Salafis have thus accused the Islamist-led government of selling out the purest form of Islam. It is a fine line that Tunisia’s leaders are currently walking.

The most radical of the Salafist gangs have attacked cultural events and shrines they consider un-Islamic. Carrying sticks and swords, they have ransacked stores selling alcohol and fought with the police. Salafist militants are also accused of leading the attack last year on the American school in Tunis as well as the U.S. Embassy attack that killed United States Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

The Salafi movement is typically spread through schools run by religious teachers who have little knowledge of or appreciation for traditional Islam. The chief task of these teachers is to promote a jihadist vision that is 1) global in scope, 2) intolerant of competing with other Sunni doctrines, and 3) fanatically anti-Shi’a. A main goal of these Salafist schools has been having their pupils spread this form of Islam world-wide. Originating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Salafist movement has made Tunisia one of its latest cultural battlegrounds.

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It’s been more than two years since anti-government protests began in Egypt. Since then, the government’s been replaced, citizens gained their right to vote, and a new president has been sworn in; however, protests in Egypt have started again, and some of them have turned violent.

Egyptians are frustrated because revolutionaries haven’t been able to translate the protests that brought down the former government into greater political action and reform. Egyptian courts are seen as politicized, police have not been reformed, and citizens do not have due process protections. Protesters are furious over the abusive treatment Egyptians receive at the hands of security forces.

Egypt’s interior minister did offer a rare apology over the weekend after officers under his command were seen on television beating a naked man two blocks from the president’s palace.  The spectacle of Hamada Saber’s beating revived bitterness at Egypt’s police force, whose record of brutality helped set off the original revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the former president, and served as a reminder that nearly two years later, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, had taken few steps to reform the police.

A protester uses a loudhailer as she chants anti-Mursi slogans during a protest in front of the presidential palace in Cairo

The latest violence has deepened a sense of crisis in Egypt. The country’s quarreling political forces, supporters and opponents of President Morsi, have blamed each other.

The current ruling party in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, and they have struggled with their leadership role. The Brotherhood was an oppressed group before the anti-government protests began, and they have had difficulty with the challenges of their new position.

The seven million bureaucrats that work in Egypt’s government have kept their jobs under Morsi; therefore the endemic corruption and bribe taking that has plagued Egypt has not been addressed. Furthermore, the Brotherhood have been so focused on seeing their Islamist constitution become law that they have ignored almost all other grievances. The Brotherhood  rammed their constitution through to approval in December.

Since becoming the president of Egypt as the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi has focused on turning Egypt into an Islamist state. Possibly because he doesn’t want to give any momentum to the secularist opposition, Mr. Morsi has not done any reforms that could alienate government workers or weaken his power base. Therefore, the little political capital that Morsi had not invested in shaping Egypt’s constitution has been focused on foreign policy. Here, Morsi is taking a page out of the North Korea playbook where he is attempting to shift attention away from internal politics. By shifting national focus to outside the country, Morsi is in less danger of offending government interest groups. Of course, so far he is failing to change the national subject.

Morsi has sought to reassert Egypt’s historical leadership role in regional affairs. In doing so, Morsi has tried to place Egypt at the center of negotiations to end the Syrian civil war. He has also warmed relations with Iran. Morsi rightly believes that if he can paint himself as a peacemaker, it will quell some of his political opposition. In that vein, Morsi has called for a national dialogue within Egypt as a response to the country’s ongoing violence.

Egypt’s Coptic Christian pope sharply criticized Morsi and the Brotherhood in an interview with The Associated Press earlier today, saying that the new constitution is discriminatory, because under it Egypt’s Christians are being treated as a minority.

The comments by Pope Tawadros II reflected the political stance, historically unusual for a Coptic Pope, that he has taken since being enthroned in November as the spiritual leader of the Copts, the main community of Egypt’s Christians. Christians are increasingly worried over the power of Islamists in the country.

Tawadros dismissed Morsi’s call for national dialogue as a way to dispel criticism that his government concentrates power in the Brotherhood without reforming corruption. Most secularist opposition parties have refused to join the dialogue, as has the Coptic Church, calling it mere window dressing.

“We will actively take part in any national dialogue that would benefit the nation,” Tawadros told The AP. “But when a dialogue ends before it starts and none of its results are implemented then we do not take part.”

Since my recent post about Egypt’s internal turmoil, I’ve had some readers email me asking that I expound on who and what the Muslim Brotherhood are.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a socio-religio-political movement that was founded in Egypt in 1936, and, to me, the Brotherhood’s philosophical framework is best understood through the writings of one of their most prolific members, Sayyid Qutb.

Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of Islam grew out of the many confrontations that occurred between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian state in the 1950s and 1960s. Increasingly radicalized by Egypt’s suppression of the movement, Qutb espoused a rejectionist ideology that was meant to be a kind of call to arms for the Egyptian people.

Qutb in an Egyptian jail

Qutb in an Egyptian jail

Qutb, who had a modern education, saw the Western world as morally decadent, racist, and devoid of familial responsibility. Worse, the West’s influence was growing in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Throughout the writings of his forty published books, Qutb divided the world into two antipodal camps, the Muslim world (dar al-Islam) and the world of evil epitomized by the West (dar al-Harb).

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Thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo today for a mass demonstration to protest a draft constitution that has been adopted by the allies of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The demonstration culminated in a mass march on the presidential palace.

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As you may be aware, Egypt’s fragile democracy was threatened last month when Morsi, a member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, moved to dramatically expand his power by nullifying Egypt’s separation of powers and granting himself absolute authority.

Separation of powers is a model for state governance. It was first used by the Roman Republic around 509 BCE. Under this model, the state is divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers as well as areas of responsibility. This ensures that no branch has more power than the other branches. The most common branch division is an executive, a legislature, and a judiciary.

Under Morsi, Egypt’s executive branch now has immunity from the other branches, thus giving the president dictator-like powers.

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