Tunisians Bury Opposition Leader as Protests Continue

Tunisian opposition leader Chukri Beleid was buried yesterday as thousands of people joined anti-government protests in the country’s most serious crisis since the 2011 uprising that began the Arab Spring.

Police fired tear gas in clashes with groups of young men trying to steal cars outside the Jalaz cemetery in the capital, Tunis, where Beleid was buried. Two military helicopters hovered as mourners carried photos of the 48-year-old lawyer and waved Tunisian flags while chanting “down with the regime.”

Looters also were the target of police firing tear gas yesterday on the capital’s main Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where mourners gathered to mark the killing of Beleid, a critic of the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party and radical religious groups.

The Tunisian Interior Ministry said in a statement on its official website that 230 people were arrested for theft, aggression and attacks on public property.

The General Union of Tunisian Workers said that about 90 percent of its members responded to a call for a strike to mark the funeral. Protests by lawyers, judges and some teachers began Feb. 7. All flights to and from Tunisia were canceled for the day, Al-Arabiya television reported, citing airport authorities.

Accusations by Beleid’s widow and other opposition figures that the ruling Islamist Ennahda colluded with extremists in the assassination, and violent anti-government protests that followed, sparked the most unrest since the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Technocrats’ Cabinet

Four secular opposition parties withdrew from the government after the Feb. 6 murder. Prime Minister Hamadi Jbeli of Ennahda vowed to form a cabinet of technocrats, a plan rejected by his own party, which said he was acting unilaterally. Yesterday, he said he stood by his decision.

The proposal, in exposing divisions within Ennahda, will probably “accelerate the current crisis and eventually lead to the fall of the government,” New York-based Eurasia Group, a political risk-analysis group, said Feb. 7 in an e-mailed note. The political uncertainty and instability may last for weeks before the parties within the majority coalition work out an acceptable compromise, it said.

Two days of clashes between security forces and demonstrators that followed the killing left one policeman dead.

IMF Talks

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 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 rose 0.7 percent yesterday.

Tunisia is in talks for a $1.78 billion International Monetary Fund standby loan to help buttress an economy that grew 2.7 percent last year and may expand 3.3 percent this year, according to IMF estimates.

Beleid’s widow, Besma Khalfaoui, said Feb. 7 that she held Ennahda, “with its fascist and democratic branches,” responsible for his death, a charge the party denied. She said her husband had asked police for protection.

Jbeli and the secular president, Moncef Marzouki, condemned the assassination, urging Tunisians not to be dragged into violence.

Tunisia’s road to democracy has been paved with rifts and accusations that a secular tradition may be undercut by the influence of a small yet vocal and at times violent movement of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis.

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.”

His 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.

Hussein Abbasi, secretary-general of the Tunisian labor union organizing yesterday’s strike, received a death threat Feb. 7 on his mobile phone, union spokesman Sami Tahiri said.

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