Tunisia: Rage explodes after leftist leader killed

Left-wing leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated on February 6.

Furious protests have exploded onto Tunisia's streets and a general strike has been called after the assassination of left-wing politician and lawyer Chokri Belaid on February 6.

Belaid was head of the far-left Party of Democratic Patriots (PPD). His killing is Tunisia's first reported political assassination since independence.

Belaid was gunned down outside his home. Only 12 hours before, he publicly denounced "attempts to dismantle the state and the creation of militias to terrorise citizens and drag the country into a spiral of violence", Al Ahram said on February 6.

Belaid's brother Abdelmajid told AFP: “I accuse Rached Ghannouchi [leader of the Islamist Ennahda party] of assassinating my brother.”

Although no suspects have been identified by police, most demonstrators agreed with him, with chants such as "Get out!" and others targeting the party and its leaders.

Zied El Heni, a member of the Union of Journalists, accused Mehrez Zouari, an interior ministry official, of setting up a death squad responsible for the death of Belaid, Tunisia Live said on February 8.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch cited a "failure to investigate and prosecute physical assaults by people apparently affiliated with violent groups" from the government.

These groups include the League for the Protection of the Revolution, which assaulted the headquarters of the main union federation, the UGTT, in December.

Although party leaders have denied links, the Tunisian opposition widely regards the League militias as enforcers for Ennahda.

Afer Belaid's assassination, thousands of people rallied outside the headquarters of the interior ministry and other places on February 7 and 8, confronting tear gas and police assault.

Protests spread across all major regional cities and towns, with a general strike in Siliana on February 8. Headquarters of the Ennahda party were attacked in several places.

Siliana was the scene of a regional uprising late last year demanding regional investment, job creation and political agency. Belaid took part in the protests, promoting interior minister Ali Larayedh to accuse him of "stirring up trouble".

The PPD was one of 12 parties that united in October to form the Popular Front. The PF has been active in trade unions and social struggle; the UGTT leadership is largely comprised of PF leaders.

Belaid's funeral took place on February 8. At the insistence of his widow, Besma Khalfaoui, women were encouraged to take part in the funeral procession.

Nessma TV estimated 1 million were on the streets.

As Belaid's body reached the Jellaz cemetery in central Tunis, Nessma TV displayed footage of looters breaking into cars. The police responded with teargas, which entered the cemetery.

"Rest in peace, Chokri, we will continue on your path," fellow PF leader and long-term labour activist Hamma Hammami said in a speech at the funeral.

The general strike was widely respected. Most flights out of Tunis's airport were cancelled, all schools were shut down, and almost all shops were closed.

Ennahda and the other forces of "stability" have jostled ensure the outrage at Belaid's death isn't chanelled into expanding the struggle for justice, dignity and work.

Ennahda Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali has announced he will dissolve the government and form a non-partisan government of "technocrats" ― despite the wishes of his own party leadership.

Whether such a government will be able to hold the Leagues to account, or deliver on the demands of the January 14 revolution, remains to be seen.