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Tunisia Unrest Persists as Islamists Reject Premier Offer

Tunisians Prepare for Funeral as General Strike Call Widens Rift
Protestors chant slogans behind barbed wire during a demonstration against the killing of opposition figure and human rights lawyer Chukri Beleid outside the Interior Ministry in Tunis on Feb. 7, 2013. Photographer: Khalil/AFP/Getty Images

Feb. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party spurned efforts by Prime Minister Hamadi Jbeli to appoint a new government, as unrest sparked by the murder of a senior opposition leader persisted for a second day.

Police closed down central Tunis yesterday and fired tear gas at protesters. Shops were shut on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where crowds outside the Interior Ministry shouted “down with the Brotherhood Party, executioner of the people” and “Martyr rest in peace, we will continue to struggle.”

“Tunisia cannot withstand a major change” in the Cabinet, Abdelhamid Jlasi, an Ennahda spokesman, said yesterday by telephone from the capital. Jbeli, an Ennahda member, decided “unilaterally” to set up a technocratic government, Jlasi said.

The Feb. 6 killing of Democratic Patriots party leader Chukri Beleid and suspicions that it was carried out on Ennahda orders led to the most unrest in Tunisia since protests two years ago began the so-called Arab Spring. Feb. 6 clashes between protesters and security forces left a police officer dead and forced Jbeli to say he would overhaul his Cabinet, a move he had resisted. A general strike is planned today.

The assassination sent Tunisia’s benchmark stock index tumbling 3.7 percent on Feb. 6, the biggest drop since Jan. 13, 2011, the eve of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure. The killing also reverberated in Egypt, where secularists have expressed alarm over the power of Islamists under President Mohamed Mursi. The Tunis index gained 0.3 percent yesterday, the first rise in four days.

Murder Accusations

Ennahda, “with its fascist and democratic branches, is responsible for this,” Beleid’s widow, Besma Khalfaoui, told the Tunisian news agency TAP, a charge the party denied. She said her husband had asked police for protection.

Beleid’s murder came after a Salafi cleric said in a video posted on the Internet that his head, and that of Ahmed Najib Chebbi, another top opposition party figure, were “wanted.”

Jbeli and secular president, Moncef Marzouki, condemned the assassination, urging Tunisians not to be dragged into violence. Jbeli’s announcement that he was setting up a technocratic government before elections marked a concession to an opposition that has accused Islamists of seeking to monopolize power.

In Washington, Victoria Nuland, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said demonstrators and the Tunisian government should exercise restraint and called for a full investigation of Beleid’s death.

Inappropriate Response

“There’s no place for violence in Tunisia’s democracy,” Nuland said yesterday at a news briefing. “It wouldn’t resolve the issues that Tunisians face and it’s not an appropriate response to murder. It’s only going to bring more violence.”

Tunisia, which has yet to adopt a new charter, is in talks for a $1.78 billion International Monetary Fund stand-by arrangement to help support the nation’s economy.

Hussein Abbasi, secretary general of the Tunisian trade union that called for the strike along with opposition groups, received a death threat yesterday on his mobile telephone, said Sami Tahiri, a union spokesman.

In Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster unleashed unrest and sent the economy into a tailspin, the killing of Beleid drew a quick rebuke from secularists who say Mursi has put the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood organization that fielded him for office ahead of the nation’s.

Dark Forces

“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 and former member of the now-dissolved parliament, said on the Twitter Inc. website. “The assassination of Chukri Beleid is an alarm for Tunisia, as well as Egypt.”

The attack, and its fallout, came against a backdrop of an Islamic summit in Cairo where government leaders stressed the need to combat Islamophobia.

Fueling secularist and opposition concern in Egypt were comments by cleric Mahmoud Shaaban, who was shown on Feb. 2 on the al-Hafez religious satellite-television channel saying “God’s verdict is death” for members of the National Salvation Front opposition bloc “who want to burn Egypt.”

Egypt’s Cabinet said yesterday it’s considering taking legal measures against anyone who issues fatwas inciting violence. The statement came a day after Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader, criticized the government for its silence.

“Religion yet again used and abused,” he said on Twitter. The government said it was increasing security around the homes of several top opposition leaders, state media said yesterday.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jihen Laghmari in Tunis at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at

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