TUNIS – The assassination of a prominent Tunisian opposition figure, Chokri Belaid, has sparked mass protests in the capital, Tunis, and in several cities across the country. Belaid was shot dead as he was leaving his home in Tunis on Wednesday morning. According to the state news agency TAP, the 48-year-old was shot four times before he was transported to a hospital in the suburbs of the capital, where he died of his wounds.
As a reaction, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced a non-partisan government of technocrats would be formed to run the country until elections can be held.
"After the failure of negotiations between parties on a cabinet reshuffle, I decided to form a small technocrat government," Jebali said in a televised address to the nation, adding that the new ministers would have “no political affiliation” and would not run for office in the upcoming elections.
Even though Jebali’s decision responded to opposition parties’ calls and was widely welcomed by Tunisians, his Ennahda party rejected the initiative and said it was an individual decision that was made without consulting the party. The Islamist Ennahda won 42 percent of seats in the first post-Arab Awakening elections in October 2011 and has been ruling the country in a coalition with two secular parties, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol.
“Ennahda didn’t know about Jebali’s decision. We were surprised by this news,” said AbedHamid Jelassi, spokesperson of the party.
Belaid – the leader of the leftist Democratic Patriots Party (Watad), which joined the Front Popular, a coalition of opposition groups – was known for his sharp criticism of Ennahda and was constantly accusing the government of not doing enough to protect the country from ultraconservative Islamists or Salafists. Belaid’s family said he had previously received a string of death threats for his political stands. His wife, Besma Khalfaoui, told TAP that the authorities had ignored her husband’s pleas for protection.
Shortly after news of his death broke, thousands of Tunisians gathered for a protest in front of the Interior Ministry in Tunis and in many other towns. Demonstrators shouted “The government should fall,” and "Shame, shame Chokri died." Police fired teargas to disperse the protesters as an ambulance carrying Belaid’s body from the hospital approached Tunis’s main street, where the demonstrations were taking place. The Ministry of the Interior announced later that a policeman was hit by stones and died during the protests.
“I’m shocked; I can’t believe this is happening in Tunisia,” said one of the protesters. “This is a sad day. I’m here because I’m concerned and worried about the future of my country.”
In the wave of anger that broke out after the assassination, many demanded Minister of Interior Ali Larayedh quit. Ennahda’s offices were also vandalized in several cities across the country.
While the motives behind Belaid’s assassination are still unknown, Larayedh said that two men under the age of 30 were involved. One allegedly shot Belaid and then took off on a motorcycle that his companion was waiting on.
Mohamed Jmour, member of the Executive Office of Belaid’s Democratic Patriots Party, accused the government of being behind the assassination. “This was a set-up crime. I blame the government and Ennahda party,” he said.
In its official statement, Ennahda condemned the “heinous crime,” saying, “Ennahda party calls on all to [embrace] solidarity, unity and vigilance and to stand against the plans of those who seek to undermine social peace and drag the country into violence.” Jebali himself said the murder was “an attack on, and an open threat to, the democratic transition in Tunisia.”
Following the news of his assassination, President Moncef Marzouki cancelled his visits to France and Egypt.
Belaid’s family said his funeral will take place on Friday, and many are expecting more protests as opposition parties have called for a general strike.
Read this article in Arabic