Funeral for Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid on Feb. 8, 2013. A general strike hit the country on the same day as the burial of the assassinated activist who was a staunch critic of the Islamist government., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Tunisia gripped by general strike as assassinated Chokri Belaïd is buried
Fears grow over political violence as opposition hero's family accuses ruling Ennahda party of being complicit in his death
Angelique Chrisafis in Tunis
The Guardian, Friday 8 February 2013 15.25 EST
As tens of thousands of mourners and protesters wrapped in national flags crammed on to the leafy hillside of Tunis's historic Jellaz cemetery, Yassim Boubakher, a lawyer in a peaked cap, began to cry.
"One thing you have to understand about Tunisians is that we hate blood," he sobbed. "We can't stand bloodshed. We lived under the dictatorship of Ben Ali for 23 years, but he finally fell when he turned guns against people and we rose up to say 'stop', we won't bear bloodshed."
As a military helicopter hovered overhead, the crowd thronged to greet the flag-draped coffin of Chokri Belaïd. A leftist opposition leader, trade unionist and lawyer, Belaïd had been one of the most outspoken critics of the post-revolution coalition government led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. He appeared on television only this week to criticise a rise in political violence.
On Wednesday he was shot dead in broad daylight after he had got into a car outside his Tunis home just before 8am. In the crowd were teachers, lawyers, shop-owners and the unemployed, women in headscarves and without, many trade unionists, leftist and secular politicians. They said his death was a watermark for post-revolutionary Tunisia, which lit the spark for the Arab spring when its popular uprising toppled the dictatorship in January 2011.
Belaïd's death was described in his cortege as a new type of political murder. Under Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's brutal regime, political opponents and rights campaigners had been imprisoned, tortured, exiled, beaten and intimidated. "Yet not since colonial times in the early 1950s has Tunisia seen a clear political assassination in the street," said a barrister, Jmel Moez, in the crowd. "Blood is not in our mentality, we've never seen this before. Murder is a red line that we can't allow to be crossed."
"We're not like Algeria next door," said one mourner, in reference to Algeria's bloody civil war. "That's not us."
"He is one more martyr," said Hedi Hammami, an unemployed philosophy graduate at the cemetery.
Belaïd's murder has plunged the country into shock and soul searching. It has also highlighted the current political stalemate in Tunisia's post-revolutionary transition process, which had been so admired by neighbours such as Egypt and Libya, besieged by their own turmoil.
After Tunisia's first democratic elections in October 2011, Ennahda became the senior partner in a coalition government with two secular centre-left parties. The temporary national assembly was given a year to draw up a new constitution before setting a date for elections. But several months after the deadline, there is still no agreement on a constitution. Some secular MPs from the junior partners have begun to withdraw support, others are demanding Ennahda gives up key cabinet posts. The country's economic situation is worsening, with unemployment officially at 17% but far higher among the young. Lawyers and campaigners say torture continues in prisons, the justice system and administration remains corrupt.
"Of greatest concern is the drip-drip of violence, political violence on the street," said Fathi Abaza, a maths teacher and trade unionist. Small but active pockets of Salafists are accused of street violence. But a key complaint at Belaïd's funeral was against shadowy so-called neighbourhood protection groups known as the Leagues of the Protection of the Revolution, a small contingent of men who claim to be opposed to remnants of the old regime, but who are accused of using thugs to stir clashes at opposition rallies and trade union gatherings. Most notable was an attack on a Tataouine branch of a new, secular opposition party – Nida Tounes – in October last year in which a local activist was killed. Belaïd was an outspoken critic of these groups, whom he accused of being affiliated to Ennahda. Others on the left said Ennahda was too permissive of violence and had failed to root it out. Ennahda deny affiliation or control of such groups.
On Friday, as Belaïd's funeral took place, Tunisia was shut down in its first national general strike since 1978, called by the main trade union, the UGTT. A senior trade unionist and university maths lecturer, Anouar Ben Kaddour, said: "The strike has one objective: no more violence. Our transition to democracy has to happen peacefully."
At Ennahda's HQ in Tunis, the party was dealing with its response to the political crisis sparked by Belaïd's murder. On Wednesday Ennahda's prime minister Hamadi Jebali said he would dissolve his government and replace it with a non-partisan cabinet and elections would be held as soon as possible.
Other parties welcomed the news but officials within Ennahda said its executive had not approved the move, suggesting divisions in a party that features many who were imprisoned, tortured or exiled during Ben Ali's reign. Jebali insisted on Friday that he would replace certain ministers with technocrats.
Hichem Laareyedh, a senior party official, said: "Even if we didn't agree with Chokri Belaïd on his political position, he was an activist that we respect, an activist for democracy in Tunisia. We were shocked by his assassination. It's something very painful for all Tunisians and we see it as a big risk for democracy."
Asked about the Belaïd family's claims that Ennahda was complicit in his death, which the party has denied, Laareyedh said: "We understand what the family is suffering, we respect the family. But accusations have been very quick, with no evidence. The investigation must continue, justice must take its course."
Several Ennahda offices were vandalised or attacked after Belaïd's death.
In central Tunis, riot police and plain clothes officers saturated Bourguiba Avenue and the area outside the interior ministry where the revolution demonstrations took place in 2011. Police on motorbikes fired teargas to stop small peaceful crowds gathering to sing the national anthem. Outside the cemetery, where protesters chanted "Down with the regime", teargas was fired and cars were set alight.
Karima Doha, 30, who wore a headscarf and works for an oil company, was on strike and followed the cortege from the union HQ. "I've come out to show that we have to exist together, I don't want the return of any kind of fear." She said half of her graduate friends were unemployed.
Yusef, 25, who works in logistics, described himself as apolitical and took part in the revolution said: "I fear our revolution's not over yet. I know people abroad say we're supposed to the be the model of the Arab spring. But this isn't a competition. We just want things to be stable." "I had just written an article on the danger of the rise of political violence after beatings at demonstrations, opposition rallies, trade union gatherings, art exhibitions," said Mourad Sellami of Le Quotidien newspaper who lived in the same block as Belaïd, heard the shots and saw the murder driving off by motorbike. "But I never thought that 48 hours after publishing that piece, I would be witnessing an assassination."
Some lawyers in the funeral procession said they feared a list of others leftists, intellectuals, trade unionists or journalists might be under threat. A 37-year-old worker in a perfume shop said: "If people start talking about a climate of fear then it's clear our revolution has been stolen from us."
Bassem Trifi, a human rights lawyer, said: "With the revolution, the barrier of fear came down in Tunisia. Tunisians won't stand for fear any more."