Tunisian police clashed with protesters for the second day after the murder of an opposition leader, marking the worst crisis since the country's Arab Spring revolt. It comes as ruling Islamists rebuffed the PM’s decision to dissolve the cabinet.
Witnesses say hundreds of protesters raided a police station in Tunis on Thursday, throwing furniture and various equipment into the streets.
Police used tear gas to disperse the stone-hurling demonstrators rallying outside the Interior Ministry headquarters in the capital. Around 300 protesters marched down the avenue chanting, “The people want the fall of the regime.”
Clashes also continued in other cities across the country. Earlier on Thursday afternoon in the central town of Gafsa, anti-Islamist protesters threw petrol bombs at police, who returned fire with tear gas.
Massive unrest in the country that was the cradle of the Arab Spring movement began on Wednesday after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a prominent secularist leftist leader and staunch critic of hardline Islamists as well as the ruling moderate-Islamist Ennahda party. Belaid had criticized the government for turning a blind eye to criminal acts by the Salafists, and was the regular recipient of death threats.
After Belaid was shot dead while leaving his house, thousands of protesters took to the streets nationwide hurling rocks, fighting police and setting fire to offices of the Ennahda party, which they blamed for the assassination. One policeman was killed in the clashes.
Following the assassination, the Popular Front to which Belaid’s Marxist Democratic Patriots' Movement belonged, as well as four other opposition groups, said they were pulling out of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), which was elected in October 2011.
So far no party took responsibility for the killing, but the Ennahda has been squarely accused by Belaid’s family of orchestrating the killing – charges it denies.
''I tell the whole world that my son died as a martyr. He lived as a brave man that served Tunisia. He didn't serve anyone other than Tunisia and its society. He never worked for a [state] function. It is the Ennahda and no one else that killed him,'' Chokri Belaid’s father Salah told AP.
In the wake of the mounting violence, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said he would dissolve the government and create a technocrat cabinet that would remain in place until a national election. But the move was strongly rejected by Ennahda, which Jebali himself heads.
“The Ennahda movement does not agree with the stance that the head of the government Hamadi Jebali took last night,” said Abdelhamid Jelassi, the party’s vice president. “We see that the country is still in need of a government that incorporates political and coalition personalities that assume the role with a political base.”
The country is facing a general strike on Friday after the UGTT, an influential trade union federation, called for the move in protest against the assassination. Meanwhile lawyers, judges and some teachers had already started a three day protest strike Wednesday. The police and army have been put on alert to prevent any outbreaks of violence and to "deal with any troublemakers,'' presidential spokesman Adnan Mancer said late on Thursday.
At the core of the growing divisions in Tunisia is a conflict between newly-empowered moderate Islamists, hardliners and secularists. The opposition has been infuriated with numerous attacks carried out by radical Salafists against movie theaters and art exhibits, as well as activists, lawyers and liberal intellectuals – everything they consider opposed to their version of Islam.
Political analyst Danny Makki told RT that the events in Tunisia show that the Arab Spring has not necessarily been a force for good.
“This could act as a catalyst for more violence and anarchy in Tunisia. Any small political change can create contempt and hatred in society, and this essentially conveyed in Tunisia now,” he said.