TUNIS, Tunisia – The funeral of an assassinated leftist politician drew hundreds of thousands of mourners chanting anti-government slogans to the Tunisian capital Friday – as well as gangs of armed youths who smashed cars and clashed with police just outside the cemetery.
Hours later, the prime minister insisted he’d try to form a new government despite his own party’s opposition, threatening to resign if his proposal wasn’t accepted.
The events added to the growing turmoil in Tunisia, where the transition from dictatorship to democracy has been shaken by religious divides, political wrangling and economic struggles. It’s been a perilous stretch for a country many hoped would be a model for other post-revolutionary Arab states.
People from across the nation flowed into Tunis to lay to rest 48-year-old Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and top figure in the Popular Front alliance who was shot dead Wednesday. Thousands helped carry the coffin of the so-called “defender of the poor” from his parents’ home to the Jellaz Cemetery a few miles away.
The funeral “was one of the most impressive in the history of Tunisia,” historian Slahhedine Jourchi said, as demonstrators marched and chanted against the ruling Islamists. The turnout at the funeral was boosted due to a general strike called by Tunisia’s most powerful labor union in honor of Belaid.
Hamma Hammami of the Tunisian Workers Party gave a eulogy as Belaid’s friends and relatives wept.
“Sleep well Chokri. We will continue the fight,” the leftist leader promised as the acrid smell of tear gas from the clashes near the cemetery invaded the air.
Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, kicking off the Arab Spring revolutions. In the two years since, a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won elections and has governed in a coalition with two secular parties.
But the ruling coalition’s failure to stem the country’s economic crisis and stop the often-violent rise of hard-line Salafi Muslims have drawn fierce criticism, especially from staunch secularists such as Belaid. He had also accused Ennahda of backing some of the political violence through its own goon squads.
Belaid was shot dead while in his car outside his home by an unknown assailant.