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February 06, 2013

Top Tunisian Opposition Leader Murdered

by Lisa Bryant

Thousands of people took to Tunisia's streets Wednesday to protest the shooting death of Chokri Belaid, a leading opposition figure, amid fears that radicals are threatening to derail the country's democratic transition.

News reports say protesters jammed the main Habib Bourguiba boulevard in downtown Tunis, yelling "shame, shame" as they denounced the killing of leftist politician. The headquarters of the moderate, Islamist Ennahda party, which rules in an uneasy coalition with secularists, was attacked and set ablaze.

Other demonstrations are being staged in towns around Tunisia, in scenes reminiscent of the country's largely peaceful revolution two years ago. 

One of the leaders of the opposition Popular Front, Belaid was shot dead outside his Tunis home just hours before. His killing has sparked shock and outrage, and fears that religious extremists are trying to hijack Tunisia's transition to democracy.

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Speaking before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki said his country has many enemies who want the revolution to fail. He denounced the "odious assassination" of Belaid, who he described as an old friend. He said Tunisia would reject the message sent by what he called the "enemies of the revolution."

An array of politicians have similarly denounced Belaid's death, including the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party. The party chief, Rached Ghannouchi, condemned the murder, saying the killers wanted a "bloodbath" in Tunisia.

Later Wednesday, the Popular Front said it was pulling out of the constituent assembly charged with writing a constitution. A spokesman said the group would also call for a general strike to protest Belaid's murder.

 
 


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Party criticized

But some critics, including members of his family, are openly accusing Ennahda of being responsible for his death. Belaid himself had strongly criticized Ennahda of failing to rein in extremist members and of threatening the opposition.

Those accusations were echoed Wednesday by one of Belaid friends Moctar Jelali, interviewed by Radio France International.

Jelali said his assassination was part of a larger plot by radicals to sow disorder. He accused the government of inertia.

Considered the birthplace of the larger Arab Spring uprising, Tunisia has managed to avoid the widespread bloodshed that has coursed through other revolts such as Libya and Syria.

But the North African country is grappling with rising violence, political clashes and high unemployment, among other problems.