Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Tunisia’s Prime Minister Hamadi Jbeli vowed to form a new cabinet and appealed for calm, as the assassination of an opposition figure sparked violence in a nation yet to stabilize after its autocratic president was ousted.
At least one police officer was killed in clashes in the capital with thousands of protesters yesterday after Chukri Beleid’s killing. A general strike is planned starting for tomorrow, and the slain politician’s widow laid the blame on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party that leads the interim government.
The murder, the most-high ranking assassination since the uprising against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali two years ago, laid bare the tensions that have been building in the north African nation where a fruit vendor’s self-immolation helped launch the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.
The attack sent Tunisia’s benchmark stock index tumbling 3.7 percent yesterday, the biggest drop since Jan. 13, 2011, the eve of Ben Ali’s departure, and reverberated in Egypt where secularists have expressed alarm over the power of Islamists under President Mohamed Mursi.
Message to All
The killing of Beleid, the head of the Democratic Patriots party, is part of a “conspiracy” against Tunisia aimed at threatening “security and stability,” the secular president, Moncef Marzouki, said, according to the state-run TAP news agency. It was a “threat and a message sent to all of us,” the president, who has repeatedly clashed with the Islamist prime minister, said.
Jbeli, a member of Ennahda, announced late yesterday that a unity government would be established. His words marked a concession to an opposition that has accused the Islamists of seeking to monopolize power, echoing accusation also leveled by secularists in Egypt.
“Those who killed Beleid wanted to silence his voice and kill the hopes of Tunisians,” Jbeli told Mosaique FM radio. He said those responsible for the assassination would be found and held responsible.
In later televised comments, Jbeli said he was forming a “technocratic” government ahead of elections.
Ennahda, “with its fascist and democratic branches, is responsible for this,” Beleid’s widow, Besma Khalfaoui, told TAP, adding her husband had asked police for protection before.
Tunisia’s road to democracy has been paved with squabbles and accusations that the influence of a small yet vocal and at times violent Salafi movement could undercut a secular tradition. The nation, which has yet to adopt a new charter, is in talks for a $1.78 billion International Monetary Fund stand-by arrangement to help buttress its economy.
Beleid’s killing came after a video appeared showing a Salafi cleric in a southeastern town saying Beleid’s head, and that of Ahmed Najib Chebbi, another top opposition party figure “are wanted.”
His death follows a Feb. 3 arson attack on the secular Nidaa Tounes opposition party headquarters in Kebili province, and clashes between opposition groups and government supporters in the cities of El Kef and Kairouan on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2.
In Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster unleashed unrest and sent the economy into a tailspin, the killing drew a quick rebuke from secularists who contend Mursi has put the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood organization that fielded him for office ahead of the nation’s.
“Confronting violence, extremism and forces of darkness is a key priority for our societies if they want freedom and democracy,” Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian secular politician under the now-dissolved parliament, said on his Twitter account. “The assassination of Chukri Beleid is an alarm for Tunisia, as well as Egypt.”
The attack, and fallout, came against a backdrop of an Islamic summit in Cairo where leaders stressed the need to combat Islamophobia.
Fueling secularist and opposition worries in Egypt were comments by cleric Mahmoud Shaaban, who was shown on Feb. 2 on the al-Hafez religious satellite channel saying “God’s verdict is death” for members of the National Salvation Front opposition bloc “who want to burn Egypt.”
“Regime silent as another fatwa gives license to kill opposition in the name of Islam,” Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who’s part of the NSF, said on his Twitter account yesterday. “Religion yet again used and abused.”
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