Murder of Opposition Leader Spurs Govt Change

As Tunisia's prime minister proposes a new government, citizens voice fears that the killing of an opposition leader will pit Islamists against secularists.

Outrage over the killing of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid led Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to dissolve the government on Wednesday (February 6th).

After Belaid - an outspoken critic of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party - was shot dead outside his Tunis home on Wednesday, thousands of demonstrators in several cities took to the streets. Hours later, Jebali said he would form a new, non-partisan administration.

"I have decided to form a government of competent nationals without political affiliation, which will have a mandate limited to managing the affairs of the country until elections are held in the shortest possible time," he said.

Ennahda has not yet issued an official statement, nor has party leader Rachid Ghannouchi reacted to Jebali's speech.

Despite the premier's televised pledge, protests continued Thursday. The governorate of Siliana launched a general strike and lawyers and judges across the country called a two-day walkout, AFP reported.

The main trade union (UGTT) also called a general strike on Friday to coincide with the funeral of Belaid.

The spontaneous protests that erupted nationwide after the Unified Democratic Patriots Party (PPDU) chief's murder have raised fears of renewed social upheaval.

Police used tear gas to disperse the thousands of demonstrators who gathered Wednesday on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis. One policeman was killed after being hit by rocks.

Protestors in Mezzouna, Gafsa and Kef also torched and ransacked Ennahda party offices.

Speaking from Paris, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki urged Tunisians to "beware the dangers of strife".

"We will continue to work to expose the enemies of revolution," he said. "Their attempts to derail the democratic transition will fail."

Constituent Assembly Chairman Mustapha Ben Jaafar also urged Tunisians to exercise self-control and engage in dialogue. Those who planned the assassination of Belaid planned to assassinate Tunisia and its democratic experiment, he said.

Belaid was known for his fierce opposition to the Ben Ali regime and the current Ennahda-led government. In a TV interview on the eve of his assassination, Belaid denounced what he called "attempts to dismantle the state and the creation of militias to terrorise citizens and drag the country into a spiral of violence".

Bessma Khalfaoui, Belaid's wife, who joined the demonstrators on Wednesday, said that her husband's killing was a blow to Tunisia, its opposition and its progressive democratic course.

Popular Front spokesman Hamma Hammami agreed that Belaid's assassination was an attempt to drag the country into chaos and prevent it from building a democratic republic.

But if the goal of Belaid's killers was to create civil strife, said law professor Kais Said, the best response would be to keep them from succeeding.

"All parties must show a sense of responsibility and calm down to find out what has really happened," he said. "National dialogue must be accelerated and consensus reached."

Tunisian citizens also voiced fears that the killing would heighten tensions between secularists and Islamists.

"This assassination may further disrupt the political atmosphere and bring about the country's entry into a war between the opposing factions," teacher Hafidha Mghirbi said. "This is what we don't wish to see."

For day labourer Abdessatar Khalfaoui, the outlook is grim. "The celebrations that I saw today on some Islamic pages on social networking websites for Chokri Belaid's assassination don't bode well," he told Magharebia.

"It shows that we're about to witness a dangerous political escalation that could lead to a bloodbath."



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