A police officer fires teargas to break up a protest during
a demonstration near the Interior Ministry in Tunis.
Tunisia's governing Islamists have rebuffed a plan by
their party chief and prime minister to replace the government
after unrest erupted over the killing of an opposition leader,
deepening the worst crisis since the country's 2011 revolution.
Turmoil in the North African state that spawned the Arab
Spring uprisings flared anew, with protesters setting ablaze
the local headquarters of the main Islamist Ennahda party and
a police station in the provincial town of Kelibia.
Police fired teargas to scatter protesters near the interior
ministry in Tunis and stone-throwing youths in the southern
mining town of Gafsa, where at least seven were injured.
Crowds ransacked electronics shops in Sfax.
Further disturbances loomed on Friday when labour unions
planned a general strike in protest at the assassination of
secular politician Chokri Belaid, and his politically charged
funeral expected to be held as well.
An aide to Hussein Abassi, leader of the UGTT union,
Tunisia's biggest, said he had received a death threat after
announcing the country's first general strike in 34 years.
Wary of further violence, many shops in Tunis closed at 2pm
(1300 GMT) while France, the old colonial power in Tunisia,
said it would shut its schools in Tunis on Friday and
Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali of Ennahda announced late on
Wednesday he would dismiss the government led by his moderate
Islamist party in favour of a non-partisan cabinet until
elections could be held soon. But the idea met swift
A senior Ennahda official said Jebali had not sought approval
from his party, suggesting the Islamist group was split over
the move to supplant the governing coalition.
"The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party,"
said Abdelhamid Jelassi, Ennahda's vice-president. "We in
Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We
will continue discussions with other parties about forming a
Ennahda's two secular coalition partners as well as the main
opposition parties also rejected any move to a government of
technocrats, demanding as well that they be consulted before
any new cabinet is formed.
Political analysts said protracted deadlock could aggravate
the unrest, which has underscored the chasm between Islamists
and secular groups who fear that freedoms of expression,
cultural liberty and women's rights are in jeopardy just two
years after the Western-backed dictatorship crumbled.
"In the likely event that there is no agreement, civil unrest
will increase, reaching a level that cannot be contained by
the police," said Firas Abi Ali of the London-based Exclusive
"If unrest continued for more than two weeks, the army would
probably reluctantly step in and back a technocrat
government, as well as fresh elections for a new Constituent
Belaid was shot as he left home for work on Wednesday by a
gunman who fled on the back of a motorcycle. That sent
thousands of protesters into the streets nationwide hurling
rocks and fighting police, similar to disturbances in Egypt
No one claimed responsibility for the killing, and the head
of Ennahda said the party had nothing to do with it.
But a crowd set fire to the Tunis headquarters of Ennahda,
which won the most seats in a free election 16 months ago.
Protests also hit Sidi Bouzid, fount of the Jasmine
Revolution that ousted dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in
While Belaid had only a modest political following, his sharp
criticism of Ennahda policies spoke for many Tunisians who
fear religious radicals are bent on snuffing out freedoms won
in the first of the revolts that rippled through the Arab
PARLIAMENT TO WEIGH NEW CABINET
Pressured by Wednesday's explosion of unrest, Jebali declared
that weeks of talks on reshaping the government had failed
amid infighting within his coalition. One secular party
threatened to bolt unless some Ennahda ministers were sacked.
Mehrzia Abidi, vice-president of the interim parliament that
has been struggling for months to draft a new constitution,
said it would discuss Jebali's proposal for a temporary
government of experts on Thursday, but this had not happened
Sadok Belaid, a constitutional law expert, said the assembly
would have to approve the cabinet overhaul. But the
assembly's dysfunctional record raised the risk of drawn-out
"It seems the opposition wants to secure the maximum possible
political gains but the fear is that the ... crisis will
deepen if things remain unclear at the political level," said
political analyst Salem Labyed.
"That could increase the anger of supporters of the secular
opposition, which may go back to the streets again."
Many Tunisians complain that radical Salafi Islamists could
hijack their democratic revolution, fearing Ennahda is coming
increasingly under their sway.
Nervous about the extent of hardline Islamist influence and
the volatility of the political impasse, global powers urged
Tunisians to see through a non-violent shift to democracy.
"The revolution at the beginning was a fight for dignity and
freedom, but violence is taking over," said French Foreign
Minister Laurent Fabius. "I want to offer France's support to
those who want to end the violence. We cannot let
closed-mindedness and violence take over," he said on BFM-TV.
But discontent has festered for some time, not only over
secularist-Islamist issues but also over the lack of progress
towards better living standards expected after Ben Ali's
"We are already suffering from recession since the
revolution. We rarely see tourists now, and this violence
will deprive us even of our Tunisian customers," said Fethi
Ben Saleh as he closed his Tunis gift shop early on Thursday
"I do not care about this conflict between Islamists and
secularists. I hate them all," the frustrated merchant said.
In a reflection of investor fears about the crisis, the cost
of insuring Tunisian government bonds against default rose to
their highest level in more than four years on Thursday.
Shortly before his death, Belaid said tolerance shown by
Ennahda and its two, smaller secularist allies toward
Salafists had allowed the spread of groups hostile to modern
culture in what has been one of the most broadly secular Arab
As in Egypt, secular leaders have accused Islamists of trying
to cement narrow religiosity in the new state. This dispute
has held up a deal on a constitution setting the stage for a
parliamentary election, which had been expected by June.