Tunisia’s Ennahda Party Rejects Premier’s New Cabinet Bid

Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda Party rejected a pledge by Prime Minister Hamadi Jbeli to set up a technocratic government after the assassination of an opposition leader sparked violent protests.

“Tunisia cannot withstand a major change” in the Cabinet, Ennahda spokesman Abdelhamid Jlasi said today by phone from the capital. Premier Jbeli, a member of Ennahda, took the decision “unilaterally,” he said.

Jbeli’s announcement came after the murder yesterday of Chukri Beleid, head of the Democratic Patriots party. The killing, which his wife blamed on Ennahda, sparked clashes between thousands of protesters and the security forces that left at least one policeman dead. A general strike is planned to start tomorrow.

The murder, the most-high ranking assassination since the uprising against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali two years ago, ignited 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. It is also drew criticism from secularists in Egypt who oppose the Islamist goverment of President Mohamed Mursi.

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. The index gained 1.3 percent as of 12:37 p.m. today in Tunis.

Message to All

Beleid’s murder is part of a “conspiracy” aimed at threatening Tunisia’s “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 announced late yesterday that a technocratic government would be established. The move marked a concession to an opposition that has accused the Islamists of seeking to monopolize power, echoing accusations 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 before elections.

Police Protection

Ennahda, “with its fascist and democratic branches, is responsible for this,” Beleid’s widow, Besma Khalfaoui, told TAP, adding that her husband had asked police for protection before.

Tunisia’s road to democracy has been paved with rifts and accusations that the influence of a small yet vocal and at times violent movement of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis may 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 his head, and that of Ahmed Najib Chebbi, another top opposition party figure “are wanted.”

“The call of that Salafi via video to kill Chukri Beleid was an unforgivable mistake,” Mohammed Khoja, chairman of the Reform Party, said today by phone. “Such calls do not represent Islam and are not legitimate.”

Arson Attack

Beleid’s death followed 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.

Egypt Reaction

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 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 today it’s considering taking legal measures against anyone who issues fatwas inciting violence. The announcement in an e-mailed statement came a day after Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who’s part of the NSF, criticized the government for its silence.

“Religion yet again used and abused,” he said on its Twitter account.

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