Assassination plunges Tunisia into crisis

Thu, Feb 7, 2013, 00:00

The Tunisian prime minister Hamadi Jebali declared last night that he would form a technocrat government. His announcement followed a day of turmoil and protest following the assassination of prominent opposition leader Chokri Belaid (48).

"After the failure of negotiations between parties on a cabinet reshuffle, I decided to form a small technocrat government," Mr Jebali said.

Ministers would not run for office, he said, but elections would be held as soon as possible. It remains to be seen whether his move will placate protesters who took to the streets across the country after the shooting dead of Mr Belaid, a prominent secular leader and critic of the government.

The headquarters of the Islamist Ennahda party, which rules in a fractious coalition with secularists, was set ablaze after Mr Belaid was shot in the head and neck four times outside his home in Tunis.

His party and other liberal groups said they would quit the assembly that is writing a new constitution following the country's two-year-old revolution and called a general strike for Thursday, when Mr Belaid will be buried.

Mr Jebali, who said the identity of the attacker was not known, condemned his killing as a political assassination and a strike against the revolution.

Tear gas

As Mr Belaid's body was taken by ambulance through Tunis from the hospital where he died, police fired tear gas towards about 20,000 protesters who marched on the interior ministry chanting for the fall of the government. Television images showed crowds shouting for a "second revolution" and yelling "Ennahda out".

Tunisia has been in political crisis in recent weeks as talks had broken down on a long-awaited cabinet reshuffle to include a wider range of parties in a coalition led by Ennahda.

President Moncef Marzouki, a long-time human rights activist, who warned last month that tensions between secularists and Islamists could lead to "civil war", reacted to news of Mr Belaid's death by cancelling a visit to Egypt today and cutting short a trip to France.

"When one has a revolution, the counter-revolution immediately sets in because those who lose power - it's not only [ the deposed dictator] Ben Ali and his family - are the hundreds of thousands of people with many interests who see themselves threatened by this revolution," Mr Marzouki said in Strasbourg before addressing the European Parliament.

Cradle of revolution

Despite calls for calm from the president, thousands also demonstrated in cities including Mahdia, Sousse, Monastir and Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the revolution, where police fired tear gas and warning shots at protesters who set cars and a police station on fire.

Mr Belaid was the co-ordinator of the left-leaning Democratic Patriots party, part of the Popular Front bloc that has been challenging the government since it came to power following the country's first post-Arab Spring election in October 2011.

While the nine-party Popular Front bloc has only three seats in the constituent assembly, the opposition jointly agreed to pull its 90 or so members out of the body, which is acting as parliament and writing the new post-revolution charter. Ennahda and its fellow ruling parties have some 120 seats.

Mr Belaid said earlier this week that dozens of people close to the government had attacked a meeting held by the Popular Front in Kef, northern Tunisia, on Sunday. A lawyer and human rights activist, Mr Belaid had been a constant critic of the government, accusing it of being a puppet of Qatar.