Tunis, Feb. 6 (AP): A Tunisian Opposition leader critical of both the Islamist-led government and of violence by radical Muslims was gunned down as he left home today — the first assassination in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
The killing of Chokri Belaid, a 47-year-old lawyer, is likely to heighten tensions in the North African nation whose path from dictatorship to democracy has been seen as a model for the Arab world so far.
Belaid had been a fierce critic of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that dominates the government, claiming that it turns a blind eye to violence perpetrated by extremists against other parties. His family said Belaid regularly received death threats — the most recent on Tuesday — but had refused to limit his high-profile activities.
Interior ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouch called the assassination a “terrorist act” and said the politician had been shot point-blank several times.
Thousands of people quickly gathered in the heart of the capital to protest in front of the interior ministry, holding the government responsible for the slaying. That is the same broad, tree-lined boulevard where weeks of anti-government protests two years ago ousted Tunisia’s long-time dictator — and the crowds today even chanted the same slogan: “The people want the fall of the regime!”
Elsewhere around the country, police responded to an assassination protest in the coastal city of Sousse with tear gas and Ennahda offices were attacked in several towns, according to Radio Mosaique and Radio Shems FM.
Belaid, a leading member of a Leftist alliance of parties known as the Popular Front, was shot as he left his house in the capital, Tunis. He was taken to a nearby medical clinic, where he died, the state news agency TAP reported.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a member of a secular party in the governing coalition, called the assassination a threat against all Tunisians.
“Chokri Belaid was murdered this very day knowing I was going to be speaking to you,” he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “This is a letter being sent to us that we will refuse to open. We reject that message and we will continue to unmask the enemies of the revolution.”
EU Parliament members held a moment of silence for Belaid. Marzouki will be heading straight back to Tunis after canceling a trip to Cairo to attend the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi told The Associated Press the slaying was an “ignoble crime” and urged authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice. He also offered his condolences to Belaid’s family and followers and called for a day of mourning.
Ghannouchi said those behind the slaying are “parties whose interests are threatened by the revolution and the democratic transition”.
Belaid was a high-profile Opposition leader, yet the motive behind his killing is unclear. It comes as Tunisia is struggling to maintain stability and revive its economy after its long-time dictator was overthrown two years ago. That revolution set off revolts across the Arab world.