Tunis - Tunisia sank deeper into political crisis on Thursday, as the ruling Islamist party rejected its own prime minister’s decision to replace the government after the assassination of a leftist politician led to a wave of angry protests.
The murder of Chokri Belaid, a 48-year-old secularist, laid bare the challenges facing this nation of 10 million, whose revolution in 2011 sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.
Because of its small, well-educated population, there were hopes Tunisia would have the easiest time transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. But instead Tunisia - a staunchly secular state under ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - is now a battleground pitting secularists, moderate Islamists, and hardline Islamists against one another.
The economy has struggled, power-sharing negotiations have stalled, and political violence is on the rise. The rejection of the prime minister’s move to create a government of technocrats to guide the country to elections also made clear that divisions exist between hardliners and moderates within the ruling party, Ennahda.
Police used tear gas on Thursday to drive off the few dozen protesters who tried to demonstrate in front of the Interior Ministry, averting a repeat of the large rallies that swept the capital hours after Belaid's assassination on Wednesday.
But full-scale riots hit the southern mining city of Gafsa, where Belaid's Popular Front coalition of leftist parties enjoys strong support. The state news agency TAP also reported clashes in cities across the country, with police resorting to tear gas and warning shots. In the northwest town of Boussalem, demonstrators set fire to a police station.
The tension could escalate on Friday during Belaid’s funeral and a strike called by the main labour union.
The police and army have been put on alert to prevent any outbreaks of violence and to “deal with any troublemakers” announced the presidential spokesman Adnan Mancer in a news conference late on Thursday.
The latest events have raised fears Tunisia may not be an exception to the turmoil in the region, where several states are in a post-revolutionary phase.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the assassination and called for the reform process to go forward, saying “Tunisia's democratic transition should not be derailed by acts of political violence”, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The situation has yet to degenerate to the point of Egypt, the scene of regular street battles between police and protesters and a total breakdown of trust between the Islamist government and the opposition. Tunisia's Islamists rule in coalition with two secular parties and must rely on consensus more than Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
Ennahda was long repressed under the secular rule of Ben Ali, but after his overthrow in January 2011, the well-organised movement won subsequent elections. Overall, Ennahda is considered a moderate grouping. Hardline Islamists known as Salafis have come out against it.
Belaid's death came as relations between the government and the opposition had deteriorated, with talks on a government reshuffle going nowhere. To make matters worse, critics such as Belaid accused the government of relying on hired thugs to attack meetings of the opposition.
To ease tensions, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced late on Wednesday he would dissolve the government and form a new one of nonpartisan technocrats to manage the country until elections, giving in to the longstanding opposition demand.
On Thursday, however, the party's executive committee rejected the move and maintained that it was not going to toss away legitimacy it had gained in elections. –