TUNIS, Tunisia — The assassination of a leading opposition figure in Tunisia on Wednesday triggered protests across the nation and raised fresh concern about the legacy of the “Arab Spring,” the pro-democracy movement now threatened in several countries by turmoil between Islamists and secular liberals.
Chokri Belaid, head of the Democratic Patriots party, was shot on his way to work in Tunis, the capital, the day after he predicted a wave of political assassinations. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but it came amid a democratic transition endangered by Islamist hard-liners with caches of smuggled weapons.
Youths hurled rocks at police around the country and thousands marched through tear gas in Tunis. Offices of the moderate Islamist Nahda party, which dominates the government, were reportedly ransacked in a spasm of anger that had simmered for months over the country’s political infighting and stalled reforms.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced that he was forming a new, technocratic government to guide the country until elections could be held “as soon as possible.”
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Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in 2010 when a vegetable vendor set himself on fire after being harassed by police. The country had long been a U.S. ally, and its revolution was quickly embraced by the West as a model for relatively peaceful upheaval, especially compared with the bloodshed that followed in Libya and Syria. But the sharpening division between Islamists and secularists is threatening that transition.
Similar scenarios are playing out in Egypt and other countries, but Tunisia’s radical Islamists, many of whom fought in Algeria and Iraq, have been more prone to violence. They have recruited in the cities and strengthened their footholds in the countryside.
“Belaid was killed, but the real target behind the assassination is the Tunisian revolution as a whole,” Jebali, an Islamist, told state TV. “He represented the true values of dialogue, respecting and embracing others in rejecting violence. This is a political assassination.”
Secularists claim Nahda is manipulating radical Salafis, who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Quran, as part of a broader agenda to tilt the nation toward extremism. Salafis rail at what they regard as liberalism seeping in from the West, and their anger is stoked by emboldened clerics.
Belaid, 48, a lawyer and outspoken leftist, was a fierce critic of Nahda’s inability to unite political factions. He often accused the party of not clamping down on Salafi attacks on movie houses, galleries, journalists, activists and others they deem as against Islam.
Belaid had received death threats and said on a television-talk show Tuesday that Nahda had given a “green light” for political assassinations. His wife, Basma, accused Nahda of orchestrating his killing, which was reportedly carried out by a lone gunman wearing a traditional hooded robe.
Nahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, denied involvement, saying, “We denounce this cowardly act that threatens the revolution and the stability of the country.”
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, who was traveling in France, said he would cancel a planned trip to Cairo on Thursday and return home. Protesters in front of the Interior Ministry, the reviled symbol of the deposed regime, echoed the slogans that were chanted against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011:
“The people want to bring down the regime.”
Police fired volleys of tear-gas canisters and protesters, including hard-core soccer fans, picked them up and hurled them back. The Interior Ministry said one policeman was killed.
A new report from Human Rights Watch says that assaults have been “carried out against intellectuals, artists, human-rights activists and journalists by individuals or groups who appeared to be motivated by a religious agenda.” It adds: “While many of the victims filed complaints at police stations immediately after the assaults, the police proved unwilling or unable to find or arrest the alleged attackers.”
Activists complain that an absence of political reform threatens civil rights. The judiciary lacks independence and the police state that jailed Islamists and kept Ben Ali in power remains largely in place and serving the Nahda government. Human Rights Watch noted, however, that Tunisians are freer to demonstrate than previously.
Many Tunisians believe that the once-persecuted Islamists have failed to embody the ideals of the revolution and are instead advancing a dangerous religious agenda.