Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the prime minister of Tunisia. He is Hamadi Jebali.
CAIRO — An outspoken critic of Tunisia’s Islamist government was shot dead outside his home Wednesday, underscoring a deepening political rift between newly empowered Islamists and their secular opposition in states across North Africa since the Arab Spring.
Chokri Belaid, an opposition leader with the leftist Popular Front coalition, was assassinated in Tunis 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 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.
“There is a fundamental ideological divide in the Arab world — let’s not pretend that it’s purely political,” he said. “There is a battle for the future of these countries and what they should look like.”
In Libya, four decades of Moammar Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule with no political parties gave way to a dangerous security vacuum, into which flooded new — and often dogmatic — political actors.
In Egypt, Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds close ties to Ennahda, have grappled with a widening tide of liberal and secular opposition. The tension, which erupted into days of deadly street clashes over the past two months, has threatened to undermine Egypt’s long-term stability and has sidelined Cairo’s quest for a multibillion-dollar international aid package.
On Wednesday, Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei criticized the Morsi government for its silence on a Salafist cleric’s recent fatwa condemning the country’s liberal opposition leaders to death.
Analysts say Tunisia’s coalition government has managed post-revolution politics better than most, and its history as a relatively secular society under Ben Ali has helped to keep extreme Islamist legislation from taking hold.
But although many of Egypt’s Salafists have chosen to participate in the country’s new democratic system, Tunisia’s Salafists have largely opted out, posing a unique challenge for Ennahda.
The party issued a statement Wednesday calling Belaid’s assassination a “heinous” crime and vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Associated Press reported.
Jebali, who is also the secretary general of Ennahda, told the Agence France-Presse news service that the killing constituted an “act of terrorism.”
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki used his Facebook page on Wednesday to call on Tunisians to exercise “self restraint, and not to be hasty in analyzing this crime and cowardly act or to blame one side or another for it.”
Rights groups and leftist politicians have accused Ennahda of being too lax in its approach to political and religious violence.
Opposition members have accused a shadowy umbrella group of Salafist militias, which call themselves “the leagues for the protection of the revolution,” of being behind a spate of attacks over the past year.
But complaints filed by victims of alleged Salafist violence rarely yield serious investigations and prosecutions, said Eric Goldstein, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.
The government’s “response to these attacks by Salafi groups is that it’s better to have dialogue with them and bring them into the political process rather than throw them in jail,” Goldstein said. “Sooner or later, they’re going to have to deal with extremists in their country and violations of their laws.”
Popular Front leaders on Wednesday drew attention to Belaid’s calls to combat the growing problem of violence, and opposition leader Mohamed Jmour told reporters that Belaid was warned by a colleague as late as Tuesday that “armed people are after him.”
A number of Belaid’s colleagues and supporters accused Ennahda of being behind the assassination. “The people who killed [him] are being adopted and cared for by the people in power,” Popular Front member Hamma al-Hammami said at a televised news conference.
Clashes erupted during protests in downtown Tunis and outside the Interior Ministry on Wednesday afternoon. Mobs also attacked Ennahda offices across the country, Human Rights Watch said in a news release. Television footage from earlier in the day showed Belaid’s supporters outside a clinic crowding around an ambulance carrying his body to a different hospital. Some were in tears.
Sharaf al-Hourani and Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.