TUNIS, Tunisia – The assassination of a leading opposition figure in Tunisia on Wednesday triggered protests across the nation and raised fresh concern about the legacy of the “Arab Spring,” the pro-democracy movement now threatened in several countries by turmoil between Islamists and secular liberals.
Chokri Belaid, head of the Democratic Patriots party, was shot on his way to work in Tunis, the capital, the day after he predicted a wave of political assassinations. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but it came amid a democratic transition endangered by Islamist hard-liners with caches of smuggled weapons.
Youths hurled rocks at police around the country and thousands marched through tear gas in Tunis. Offices of the moderate Islamist Nahda party, which dominates the government, were reportedly ransacked in a spasm of anger that had simmered for months over the country’s political infighting and stalled reforms.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced that he was forming a new, technocratic government to guide the country until elections could be held “as soon as possible.” It was not clear whether the move would appease opposition groups increasingly dismayed by Nahda’s maneuvers.
Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in 2010 when a vegetable vendor set himself on fire after being harassed by police. The country had long been a U.S. ally, and its revolution was quickly embraced by the West as a model for relatively peaceful upheaval, especially compared with the bloodshed that followed in Libya and Syria. But the sharpening division between Islamists and secularists is threatening that transition.
“Belaid was killed, but the real target behind the assassination is the Tunisian revolution as a whole,” Jebali, an Islamist, told state TV.