Mass protests after Tunisian opposition leader shot dead
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The offices of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party have been attacked and thousands of angry Tunisians are protesting after the killing on Wednesday morning of leading leftist and secular politician Chokri Belaid.
Thousands of angry demonstrators took to the streets of the Tunisian capital of Tunis and other cities and towns on Wednesday following the assassination of a leading secular opposition leader.
Police fired tear gas as enraged demonstrators pelted security forces with bottles outside the Interior Ministry building in Tunis. In Sidi Bouzid - the central Tunisian town better known as the birthplace of the Arab Spring, - police fired into the air and used tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
“The reaction to the killing is growing from moment to moment,” said FRANCE 24’s Mischal Benoit Lavelle, reporting from Tunis. “There are several thousand people gathered on the central Avenue Habib Bourguiba in spontaneous protests.”
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki cut short a planned visit to France and cancelled an appearance at a summit in Egypt to return home.
While the motives for Belaid’s killing remained unclear, the high profile assassination in broad daylight comes at a time of heightened political turmoil between supporters of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party and the secular opposition coalition.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly after Belaid’s assassination on Wednesday, his widow, Basma Belaid, said she had no doubt that Ennahda was responsible for her husband’s murder.
“I accuse Ennahda and the [Ennahda] party leader [Rached] Ghannouchi personally of assassinating my husband,” she said. “I’m going to file charges of murder. I hold the interior minister equally responsible.”
Ghannouchi has denied responsibility for the assassination and has urged authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Speaking on FRANCE 24 Wednesday morning, Alaa Talbi, a close friend of Belaid, said the politician had been threatened and “beaten up” on Sunday during a party meeting in the north-western town of Kef.
Vocal opponent of political ‘militias’
A charismatic, outspoken politician, Belaid was a leading voice of Tunisia’s secular opposition and a harsh critic of the Islamists who have come to dominate Tunisian politics since the country’s revolution in early 2011.
In a speech aired on a private Tunisian TV station Tuesday night, Belaid accused Ennahda of sanctioning political assassinations.
Tunisia is witnessing a rise in violence fed by political and social discontent, more than two years after the revolution that toppled former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Belaid had been particularly outspoken against the so-called Committees to Protect the Revolution, which many Tunisian opposition supporters believe are affiliated to the Ennahda party.
“These are groups of volunteers throughout the country who stage protests that have become violent against opposition figures,” explained FRANCE 24’s Benoit Lavelle. “More and more people have been calling them ‘militias’ and Belaid was one of the foremost proponents of this theory that the committees were really political militias organized by Ennahda.”
Protests in Paris
As news of Belaid’s killing spread, protests broke out across the country as well as in Paris, which has a considerable Tunisian population.
Protesters in the Tunisian towns of Mezzouna, near Sidi Bouzid, as well as Monastir, Mahdia and Gafsa torched the Ennahda party offices, according to news agency reports.
In Paris, protesters gathered outside the North African country’s embassy.
Responding to the news, French President François Hollande condemned Belaid’s murder “in the strongest possible terms”.
“Tunisia has been deprived of one of its bravest and most free voices,” the Socialist President of Tunisia’s former colonial ruler said in a statement. “Belaid strived … for freedom, tolerance and the respect of human rights, and he believed profoundly that dialogue and democracy should be at the heart of the new Tunisia.”