Tunis — The murder of the PPDU party chief was an "act of terror", Tunisian leaders say.
Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid was shot and killed outside his home Wednesday (February 6th), sparking a wave of protests.
"This is a criminal act, an act of terrorism, not only against Belaid but against the whole of Tunisia," Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali told Mosaique FM, promising to pursue all efforts to "immediately" arrest the murderer.
An outspoken opponent of the Ennahda-led government, Belaid was the head of the leftist Unified Democratic Patriots Party (PPDU). On Saturday, he accused salafists and Ennahda members of attacking a meeting of his opposition party in El Kef.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche told Wataniya TV that the ministry condemned the killing of Belaid and considered it a terrorist act.
The assassin was accompanied by another person who was waiting on a motorcycle and both fled immediately after the shooting, Taroucche said.
Tarrouche also stressed that all politicians and people should not get carried away by anger or call for violence in response to the attack.
Belaid's murder sparked protests in several Tunisian towns. Demonstrators torched one Ennahda party office in Mezzouna and ransacked another in Gafsa, AFP reported. Thousands of people also rallied outside the interior ministry on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis.
In Sfax the situation rapidly deteriorated when protestors attacked the local Ennahda office. The governor of the region was evacuated under armed guard, Tunisie Numerique reported. A number of teachers have also reportedly joined the protests and refused to work.
Protests were also reported in Sidi Bouzid, where thousands of demonstrators were pushed back by police with tear gas. The army eventually intervened to calm the crowd after hundreds of protestors attacked the police station.
The crisis led President Moncef Marzouki to cut short a trip abroad. Speaking before the European Parliament on Wednesday, Marzouki denounced the "odious assassination" of Belaid. He also vowed that Tunisia's democratic revolution would not be derailed.
The assassination came at a time when Tunisia was already facing political turmoil as secular parties in the ruling troika sought a cabinet reshuffle.
The Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol were seeking the replacement of the justice and foreign ministers, both positions now held by Ennahda.
For its part, the CPR threatened to withdraw its ministers from the current government within a week unless a document on government performance was signed, according to a statement party Secretary-General Mohamed Abbou made Saturday.
Ettakatol spokesman Mohamed Bennour said that the justice ministry was the reason behind the cabinet dispute and that the party required the departure of Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri in order to stay in the government.
But Ennahda chief Rachid Ghannouchi has said that the moderate Islamist party would not abandon the justice ministry in a cabinet reshuffle.
Amid the political squabbling in the ruling coalition, opposition parties announced they were joining forces to form their own alliance.
Nidaa Tounes, the Republican Party and El Massar issued a statement on January 29th announcing their new coalition, saying that they aimed to "to embody the aspirations of the revolution: freedom, democracy, social justice and dignity".
"The official announcement of a political and electoral front is the result of fraternal and frank dialogue between these parties," Nidaa Tounes chief Beji Caid Essebsi said. "The birth of the front is a first step, while waiting for the engagement of other currents and trends that share the same political principles and agree on a political perception of the style of the Tunisian society."
Najib Chebbi of the Republican Party told Magharebia that the new alliance aimed to "create balance in the politician scene".
"Freedom cannot be sustained in the presence of a dominant political party against dispersed ones," Chebbi said. "This front will initiate the option of a peaceful rotation of power."
In the same vein, El Massar Secretary-General Ahmed Ibrahim said the political alliance would present itself as "a new alternative capable of finding solutions for the country".
"The challenges of the front are to find solutions to all issues pertaining to the country at this stage. The components of the front will deepen the debate on all issues related to a democratic transfer, especially national dialogue. It will also work to expand its alliance to include all the parties that agree on a set of principles, the most prominent of which is the social pattern," he added.