Chokri Belaid, a leader of the leftist Popular Front alliance and an outspoken critic of Tunisia’s government, was shot dead outside his home Wednesday, a day after he received the latest in a string of death threats and called for a national conference on political violence.
No one has asserted responsibility for the attack. But Belaid’s death sparked an outcry from Tunisian opposition members, who blamed extremist Islamist groups and Ennahda, the party that heads the government.
Clashes between Belaid supporters and police continued for a second day Thursday. Protesters hurled rocks at police amid showers of tear gas in the capital, Tunis, and in the central city of Gafsa, local media reported. The violence in Tunis on Wednesday left one police officer dead.
Government officials swiftly condemned Belaid’s killing, and, in an attempt to defuse the situation, Jebali said he would dissolve the government as soon as possible and form a cabinet composed of technocrats who would work to move the country toward a national election.
But on Thursday, Ennahda, which Jebali also heads, rejected the move.
“Ennahda movement does not agree with the stance that the head of the government Hamadi Jebali took last night,” Abdelhamid Jelassi, the party’s vice president, said in comments published on Ennahda’s Web site. “We see that the country is still in need of a government that incorporates political and coalition personalities that assume the role with a political base.”
Belaid’s murder underscores a political rift between newly empowered Islamists and their secular opposition that has deepened in states across North Africa since the Arab Spring. Two years after the uprising that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the assassination follows a growing pattern of political and religious violence, as democratic elections and the fall of an autocrat have empowered Islamist groups, including fundamentalist Salafists, to flex their muscles in an environment with freer politics but far less security.
Over the past year, Tunisia’s most radical Salafists have carried out attacks on liberal intellectuals, artists, human rights activists and journalists. They have also attacked alcohol sellers, art exhibits, movie theaters and shrines. And they are accused of carrying out an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in September, allegedly in retaliation for an anti-Islam film that was produced in the United States.
Opposition leaders have criticized Ennahda for its failure to rein in the Salafists. In a recent television interview, Belaid accused the party of giving a “green light” to political assassinations. The day before his death, he also warned at a news conference that Tunisia could soon be engulfed by political violence.