Tunisia: Assassination of opposition leader sparks mass protests

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After a day of massive protests in Tunisia, ruling Islamist party Ennahda dissolved its coalition government on Wednesday, promising rapid new elections.

The day saw the biggest street protests since the country's revolution two years ago.

 The protests were sparked after a well known political opposition leader, Shokri Belaid, was shot dead outside of his home Wednesday morning.

Protesters took to the streets in cities across the country throughout the day, as police and protesters clashed amongst clouds of teargas.

Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali of the Ennahda party spoke on television in the evening declaring that weeks of talks among the various political parties, aimed at reshaping the coalition government, had failed. Jabali said they will now replace his entire cabinet with "non-partisan technocrats" until elections could be held, Reuters reports.

Belaid, 48, was shot at close range as he left for work by a gunmen who fled on the back of a motorcycle.

The day before his death Belaid publicly lambasted Ennahda and the party's allies for a "climate of systematic violence" in the country.

Although the reason for the killing is unclear, it comes as Tunisia continues to struggle with "social and religious tensions" since the 2011 self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi which catapulted the country into nation-wide revolution, ousting its longtime dictator President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and triggering similar revolts across the Arab world.

Belaid was a well-known leader of the left-leaning opposition Unified Democratic Nationalist party and, as a lawyer and human rights activist, had been a vocal critic of Tunisia's leadership -- especially the dominant Islamic party, Annahda. Al Jazeera reports, "[Belaid] had accused authorities of not doing enough to stop violence by ultraconservatives who have targeted mausoleums, art exhibits and other things seen as out of keeping with their strict interpretation of Islam."

Last month, secular President Moncef Marzouki warned the tension between secularists and Islamists might lead to "civil war."

Following the Tunisian revolution of 2011 ousted a longtime dictator, spurring similar uprisings across the Arab world, the Islamic-dominated Annahda party won 42 percent of seats in the first elections and formed a government in coalition with two secular parties, including President Marzouki's Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol.

According to reports, Belaid was an outspoken critic of the coalition government. His small party co-founded the Popular Front, a leftist alliance preparing to compete in the elections this year.

The Guardian writes that Belaid's murder "comes amid reports of intimidation and violence against opposition groups, and days before an official commission of inquiry is due to report its findings on an attack against a trades union rally in December."


Lauren McCauley is a staff writer with Common Dreams, where a version of this article was originally published. It is reprinted here with permission. 

Photo: Demotix / Corbis

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