The chill of spring

Elsewhere the outlook is hardly less bleak. For example, Tunisia, the "poster child" of the Arab Spring, seems to be lurching towards the wintry brink of Islamic extremism. Last October, a piece in The New York Times, entitled "Tunisia, a sad year later", expressed bitter disappointment in the socio-political developments, and growing consternation at the creeping ascendancy of extremists, flouting the law with impunity in the face of government impotence. This slide towards coercive radicalism is taking place despite the fact that moderate secular parties won a clear majority in the last elections, yet seemingly lack the political acumen to confront and contain their more resolute and radical rivals.

The murder this month of prominent left-wing secularist Chokri Belaid, head of the Democratic Patriots' Movement, and leader of the Popular Front opposition coalition, whom some saw as a vital linchpin in galvanising effective political resistance to the Islamists, seems to be merely a continuation in the escalating spiral of political thuggery. Significantly, the night before his death, he reportedly declared "All those who oppose Ennahda [the ruling Islamist party] become the targets of violence."

Although suspicion seems to focus mainly on Salafists, some seasoned analysts see a seamless interface between Salafist elements and the Muslim Brotherhood, in which Ennahda has its roots. Indeed, according to The Guardian, opposition parties are demanding the government shoulder responsibility for Belaid's killing, since "it had failed to curb intimidation, violence and threatening language used by radical preachers and on extremist websites". The killing has brought Tunisia to the brink of the sort of political polarisation it had managed to avert since the ousting of the Ben Ali-regime in January 2011, and which the current government seems unable to stem -- raising considerable uncertainty as to how events will unfold.

Similarly, in other countries, the challenge to the old authoritarian regimes leaves little room for optimism. Syria seems to be descending in to a bloody vortex of chaos. Although the Assad-regime appears to be drawing to an excruciatingly slow, but inexorable, end, there must be grave concern for the future. The opposition is made up of a wide range of diverse elements -- several of them, such as the al-Nusra Front, embracing extremist Salafist ideology -- with scant coordination among them. This was highlighted by the burst of outrage sparked by the announcement last month by the designated leader of the coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, of his willingness to enter into negotiations with the Assad regime. Significantly, there appears little to unite the disparate anti-Assad forces other than their enmity towards the regime -- leaving room for a profound sense of unease at to how they will conduct themselves once they succeed in toppling it.

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