No one has asserted responsibility for the attack. But Belaid’s death sparked an immediate outcry from Tunisian opposition members, who blamed extremist Islamist groups and Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that heads the government. Clashes erupted between rock-throwing Belaid supporters and police, who fired tear gas, during demonstrations in Tunisia’s capital on Wednesday afternoon.
Government officials swiftly condemned Belaid’s killing, and, in an attempt to defuse the situation, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said Wednesday night that he will dissolve the government as soon as possible and form a cabinet composed of technocrats that would work to move the country toward a national election.
Belaid’s death is the first political assassination in Tunisia since the uprising two years ago that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. But the attack follows a growing pattern of political and religious violence in recent months, 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.
Tunisia’s government has not been alone in its struggle to manage the emergent extremist threat and in its growing confrontation with a liberal opposition.
New moderate Islamist governments in Egypt and Libya also have been struggling to contain powerful extremist groups on the one hand and an increasingly angry secular opposition on the other, in battles for influence over new constitutions, elected bodies and legislation.
But Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Doha Center, said the divide that has come with the Arab Spring’s nascent pluralism was predictable. “I don’t think it was possible to stop this divide from happening,” said Hamid, who was in Tunis on Wednesday.