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Chaos grows as Tunisia buries assassinated opposition leader

Bouts of violence marred Friday’s funeral as police fired tear gas at demonstrators and arrested about 200 for looting.

Amine Landoulsi/AP

Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid was buried as a martyr for freedom and democracy in a country that is threatened with the loss of both, as an uprising against the ruling Islamist party gained momentum.

Mr. Belaid's assassination triggered a ferocious backlash against the main Islamist party, Ennahda, one that continued during the funeral Friday, attended by as many as 100,000 people.

The murder of Mr. Belaid and his funeral were closely watched throughout Egypt and other parts of the Arab Spring world and appeared to mark a turning point in Tunisia's tense and increasingly fractious political scene.

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The opposition used Mr. Belaid's slaying to galvanize the fight between the secular and Islamist visions of postrevolutionary Tunisia. That fight threatens to explode in the coming months, as the conservative wing of Ennahda resists pressure to dismantle the government and hold early elections.

The midafternoon funeral on Friday was a largely peaceful event marred by bouts of violence – and brief periods of panic – as crowds tried to outrun billowing clouds of tear gas aimed at demonstrators and looters on the edges of the vast El Gellaz cemetery, the main burial site in central Tunis. The funeral came as Tunisia was paralyzed by a general strike that closed the airport, shut almost all stores and left the streets full of rotting garbage. Police arrested about 200 people for looting.

As Mr. Belaid was being buried, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, a member of the moderate wing of Ennahda, ramped up his effort to appoint non-partisan ministers to run government departments. He wants the political parties freed up so they can devote their energies to writing the long-delayed constitution and launch early elections.

Apparently emboldened by the funeral's turnout and the outpouring of grief and support for Mr. Belaid, Mr. Jebali said at a press conference: "It is very important for all the parties to regain consensus, a neutral government neutral toward the parties, that will spend its energies to achieve the goals of the revolution."

The assassination of Mr. Belaid has put extreme pressure on the Islamist government to respect and achieve the goals of the revolution – the creation of an all-inclusive, democratic society – or get out of the way.

Since Ennahda was elected in October, 2011, in Tunisia's first free election in the the first Arab Spring country, harassment of, and violent acts against, opposition party officials and members of secular society have climbed at an alarming rate, to the point that many Tunisians think the country is in danger of failing as a democratic state. "Ennahda must leave," said Mounir Ben Salem, 46, an information-technology engineer who went to school with Mr. Belaid. "We need another revolution."

Mr. Belaid, 47, was a leftist human-rights lawyer and the father of two young children. He was best-known as a relentless critic of Ennahda which he accused of tolerating, even encouraging, violence; attempting to roll-back freedoms; and harbouring a secret agenda to set up a theocracy. Mr. Ben Salem called Mr. Belaid called "a generous man, committed and courageous" who was devoted to his working-class neighbourhood, called Jbel al-Jloud, in the southern outskirts of Tunis.

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His murder was considered a political assassination designed to instill fear in any political leader who dared to question the authority of the Islamist government. While senior Ennahda official condemned the murder as "odious" and "an act of terrorism," vowing to catch and punish his assailants, many Tunisians blame the party for failing to crack down on the violent groups who may have been responsible for his death.

On Friday night, a well-known Tunisian journalist, Zied El Heni, used an appearance on Nessma TV to accuse an official at the Ministry of Interior Affairs of responsibility for Mr. Belaid's murder. He asked prosecutors to investigate the matter. The accusation was widely reported and came as a shock to many Tunisians.

Mr. Belaid's funeral procession started in the late morning near his family's home in Jbel al-Jloud and attracted thousands of supporters, ranging from friends to lawyers, who were also on strike, and who had worked with Mr. Belaid.

Their anger was palpable. The throng shouted "The Ennahda government is a terrorist government" and "Your blood was not spilled for nothing."

Many called for a new revolution as they condemned Ennahda for the rise in violence. "These people are not moderate Islamists; they are extremists," said Donia, a 37-year-old communications worker who did not want to give her last name because her company sometimes works with the government. "What Jebali did [by asking for a technocrat government] was the right thing for the nation."

But the Ennahda government is giving no indication that it will meet the demands of its prime minister. On Thursday, the day after Mr. Jebali said that he intended to dissolve the government, the party said that Mr. Jebali had no legal right to do so and that it had not been consulted on his decision.

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As Ennahda continues to dig in, Mr. Jebali is toying with new strategies, including announcing a cabinet reshuffle that may have the same effect as dissolving government. His reshuffle would apparently put technocrats in key government ministries.

Many Tunisians expect a battle between the moderate and more conservative arms of Ennahda in coming weeks, one that would destabilize the government and lead to more demonstrations. "Everyone is convinced that this government has failed but we don't think it will step down without a huge fight," said Ousema Helal, a corporate lawyer who attended Mr. Belaid's funeral.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More


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