TUNIS, Feb 15, 2013. By Perrine Massy (AFP) – Besma Khalfaoui, Chokri Belaid’s widow, has become a symbol of Tunisia’s secular opposition and scourge of the ruling Islamists, waving her fingers in a victory sign just hours after her husband was killed.
On February 6, Tunisians saw the mother-of-two, her face lined with grief and her trousers still covered in blood, urging people not to react to her husband’s assassination with violence, as she joined outraged protesters in central Tunis.
Those televised images transformed the discreet 42-year-old lawyer into an instant icon.
Moved by the presence of so many people at Belaid’s funeral, which became a mass opposition rally thought to be the largest since the revolution, she cried out: “How beautiful Tunisia is!” before launching into the national anthem.
On Saturday, she will take part in another memorial ceremony in the northern town of Jendouba, birthplace of her husband who was gunned down beside her outside their Tunis home in an attack that sparked a major political crisis.
Belaid was a prominent leftist politician and scathing critic of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, and Khalfaoui seems to determined take up the torch.
“It is from Chokri that I draw my strength. I will continue his struggle,” she said, while not hesitating to accuse Ennahda, elected 14 months ago in Tunisia’s first post-uprising poll, of orchestrating her husband’s assassination.
On Monday, visibly exhausted but not shying away from the cameras and media attention, Khalfaoui joined protesters outside the National Constituent Assembly to call for the government’s immediate resignation.
But she has also earned a reputation for her campaign against violence by visiting the widow of Lotfi Ezzar, a policeman killed on the same day as Belaid in the violent protests that erupted after his assassination.
“She is a strong woman, courageous and persevering,” said Radhia Nasraoui, a well-known lawyer and anti-torture activist who has known Khalfaoui for years.
“She represents Tunisian women,” Nasraoui told AFP.
In 1995, during the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in Tunisia’s revolution in January 2011, she got involved with the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women.
As a specialist in human rights law, who grew up in a poor neighbourhood in the capital, she is a staunch defender of Tunisia’s once proud secular tradition, like her husband, and a determined advocate of gender equality.
But while commanding the respect and admiration of many Tunisians, she has also riled supporters of the ruling Islamists.
A photograph of her face crossed out in red circulated on social networking sites, with the stark warning: “Don’t be arrogant: you don’t represent Tunisian women – we’ve had enough of you and your face.”
In response to the threat, Khalfaoui asked the interior ministry to guarantee both her own safety and that of her daughters aged 4 and 8, a request that she says has not been met.
Some hope she will now take the reins of her husband’s opposition party, amid political disarray in Tunisia, whose Islamist Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali is scrabbling to form a government of technocrats in defiance of his own party.
“For the moment, Besma is very tired. She is being monitored by a doctor and is resting,” her brother Karim told AFP.