Political crisis grips Tunisia in wake of assassination
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Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahda party rejected Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s pledge to dissolve the government and install an interim non-partisan cabinet, adding to tensions a day after secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated.
Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahda party on Thursday rejected the prime minister’s pledge to form a government of technocrats and to call fresh elections, one day after the assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid .
Tunisia’s ambassador to France criticised Ennahda’s opposition to Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali’s plans to form a new government.
“It’s dangerous,” Ambassador Adel Fekih told FRANCE 24. “For the last few months [the government has been at] an impasse. I know that since June there have been a number of parties within the coalition who have asked for a cabinet reshuffle because the people’s needs weren’t being met. The Ennahda party has been determined to maintain their predominance in government, a position that they continue to hold today.”
Belaid’s murder by masked men outside his Tunis home on Wednesday sparked a huge outpouring of anger across Tunisia, with nationwide protests that saw Ennahda offices trashed and torched and at least one death. The party has ruled Tunisia since elections there in October 2011.
Protests continued Thursday with police firing teargas at demonstrators in central Tunis as they marched near the interior ministry on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the centre of the 2011 uprising that toppled the country’s former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Meanwhile, lawyers, judges and some teachers began a two-day strike, as the influential UGTT trade union called for a general strike on Friday. The French embassy in Tunis also announced that its schools in the city would be closed on Friday and Saturday.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, a leading member of the Ennahda party, said in a televised address late on Wednesday that he would form a new non-political administration ahead of fresh elections. He did not say when these elections would take place.
"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.
But members of his party on Thursday rejected his proposal to form a cabinet of technocrats.
"The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party," Abdelhamid Jelassi, Ennahda's vice-president, told Shems FM radio. "We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with others parties about forming a coalition government."
Nejib Chebbi, leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, blamed Interior Minister Ali Laraydeh of Ennahda for Belaid's murder and demanded his sacking "because he knew Belaid was threatened and he did nothing."
Belaid’s family also accused Ennahda, and in particular its leader Rachid Ghannouchi, of being responsible for his death.
Belaid's brother, Abdelmajid, bluntly accused the Ennahda chief of the murder of the 48-year-old leftist leader, who headed the Party of Democratic Patriots, part of the Popular Front.
"I accuse Rachid Ghannouchi of assassinating my brother," he told the AFP news agency.
The slain politician's wife also laid the blame for the killing firmly on the Islamist ruling party.
“I accuse Ennahda and the [Ennahda] party leader [Rachid] Ghannouchi personally of assassinating my husband,” she said. “I hold the interior minister equally responsible.”
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 northwestern town of Kef.
Belaid had last week accused Ennahda "mercenaries" of attacking his supporters and on Tuesday warned that militias were being created "to terrorise citizens and drag the country into a spiral of violence."
Leading Ennahda figures rejected any involvement in the killing.
Ghannouchi, the founder of the Ennahda movement, said the killing was "cowardly" and that is was the result of a “settling of scores”. He also said that the killers intended to create "a bloodbath - but they won't succeed.”
Prime Minister Jebali, a senior figure in the Ennahda movement, told Tunisian radio on Wednesday morning that his party had nothing to do with the assassination, which he described as “a political assassination and an assassination of the Tunisian revolution.”
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a centrist, deplored the killing in an impassioned speech at the European Parliament.
"This odious assassination of a political leader who I knew well and who was my friend... is a threat, it is a letter sent that will not be received," he said, insisting the murder would not plunge Tunisia into violence.
The violent scenes triggered by Belaid's murder, in which one policeman was killed, were reminiscent of the uprising that ousted Ben Ali just over two years ago.
Belaid’s supporters flooded the streets of Tunis and other cities, including Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of the 2011 revolution, where tear gas was fired as about 200 people tried to storm the police headquarters.
Protesters torched the Ennahda office near Sidi Bouzid, ransacked another in Gafsa and set fire to a party office in the northeastern town of Kef.
In Kasserine, on the border with Algeria, hundreds of people called for "vengeance" as they took to the streets.
Belaid, whose funeral will be on Friday after the main weekly prayers, was a populist known for his iconic smile and black moustache.
A lawyer who spoke with the working-class accent of northwestern Tunisia, he defended human rights, was jailed under Ben Ali, and was a member of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's legal defence team.
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