Tunisians protest after Mohamed Brahmi's assassination. Two days of demonstrations have called for the resignation of the Islamist government., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Police clash with protesters in Tunisia's Sidi Bouzid
By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police fired teargas late on Saturday to disperse violent protests in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the country's revolution and hometown of slain secular opposition figure Mohamed Brahmi, witnesses said.
Tensions have run high in Tunisia since Brahmi's Thursday assassination, and large protests throughout the day were met with police teargas.
In a bid to stave off unrest amid intensifying protests, particularly in the capital, secular coalition partners of Tunisia's ruling Islamist party said they were in talks to reach a new power-sharing deal.
The spokesman for the Constituent Assembly, Tunisia's transitional parliament tasked with drafting a new constitution for the North African country of 11 million people, said he expected a deal in the coming hours.
"The trend now is to move towards expanding the base of power," Mufdi al-Masady told a local radio station.
The effort to reach a new deal by secular coalition partners of the ruling Ennahda party could help defuse increasingly hardline rhetoric on both sides. But so far, protests in the country have continued.
In Sidi Bouzid, locals told Reuters that angry protesters threw rocks at police.
"Hundreds of protesters lit tires on fire to block roads and they threw rocks at the police," resident Mahdi al-Horshani told Reuters by telephone. "There is a lot of anger and frustration at the situation."
Tensions have skyrocketed in Tunisia since Brahmi's killing, which came just months after another secular opposition figure was gunned down. Secular opposition groups immediately began organizing protests and demanded the dissolution of the Islamist-led government.
Their efforts have been fuelled by the recent protests and unrest in Egypt, which toppled that country's democratically elected but unpopular Islamist leader a year after he came to power.
The Islamist and secular movements also appeared on the brink of confrontation on Saturday night.
Thousands of secular protesters faced off with hundreds of Islamists defending the legitimacy of Islamist rule on Saturday night, in one of the biggest sets of rival rallies to hit the Tunisian capital in months.
No clashes were reported, but hundreds of police were standing on the sidelines.
Earlier on Saturday, police fired teargas to disperse secular protesters who gathered in front of parliament following the Brahmi's funeral.
Secular opposition parties are demanding the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated government and parliament, known as the Constituent Assembly.
Opposition protesters carried signs saying: "Leave" and "We won't leave before you do."
At a mosque next to the secular opposition rally, Islamist protesters came out in the hundreds, vowing to support the government.
'DON'T THROW IN THE TOWEL'
The speaker of the Constituent Assembly urged lawmakers who had withdrawn from the assembly in protest to return to work at this critical juncture for completing the constitution. By Saturday, at least 52 had withdrawn from the 217-member body.
"I call on them to back down from their decision. It's not rational to throw in the towel just meters away from the finish line," Mustafa Ben Jaafar said in a televised speech.
"The constitution will be agreed on in August and the assembly will finish its work on October 23."
The death of secular opposition figure Brahmi, shot dead, came months after another secular leader, Chokri Belaid, was killed in a similar attack that stoked violent protests.
Brahmi's killing has intensified the divisions between Islamists and their secular opponents that emerged after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011, sparking a wave of revolutions that felled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Witnesses said one man was killed early on Saturday in an anti-government protest in the southern city of Gafsa. Violence also broke out in several other cities.
A bomb in a police car exploded in Tunis but caused no casualties, as authorities keen to maintain stability cast a nervous eye at events in Egypt where violence has spiraled since the Islamist president was ousted by the military on July 3.
SALAFIST GROUP DENIES ROLE
Khamis Kssila of the opposition Nida Touns party said earlier that departing parliamentarians would begin a sit-in to demand the dissolution of the assembly and formation of a national salvation government - ideas rejected by Prime Minister Ali Larayedh.
Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou drew a direct link between the latest killing and the assassination of the Popular Front's leader, Belaid.
Aiming suspicion at a hardline Islamist, the minister said the same gun had been used in Thursday's killing as in the Belaid attack.
Authorities have identified 14 Salafists suspected of involvement in Belaid's assassination, and most were believed to be members of the local hardline Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, he said.
The group denied any role in a statement on Saturday.
"Ansar al-Sharia has no links to this political assassination that was done as part of a known effort whose goal is to drag the country into chaos," it said.
Tunisia's political transition since the revolt that toppled Ben Ali has been relatively peaceful, with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party sharing power with smaller secular parties.
But the government has struggled to revive the economy and has come under fire from secularists who accuse it of failing to curb the activities of Salafi Islamists.
(Additional reporting by Fatma Matoussi; Editing by David Evans, Sonya Hepinstall and Peter Cooney)
Thousands protest government at Tunisia funeral
5:55 p.m. EDT July 27, 2013
Thousands of protesters chanting anti-government slogans joined a funeral march to lay to rest Mohammed Brahmi, an assassinated Tunisian opposition politician on Saturday.
Thousands of protesters chanted anti-government slogans at the funeral of an assassinated Tunisian opposition politician
Mohammed Brahmi's coffin was buried next to another killed politician
The assassination has exacerbated the distrust between the ruling coalition and the opposition
TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Thousands of protesters chanting anti-government slogans joined a funeral march to lay to rest an assassinated Tunisian opposition politician on Saturday, a display of the anger threatening the survival of a government once seen as a model in the region for the transition to democracy.
Adding to the tension, a bomb exploded in the early morning underneath a car at the port in Tunis outside a police station. Though there were no injuries, the rare attack helped deepen the sense of unease in this North African country, where two opposition politicians have been shot dead in the last six months, apparently with the same gun.
Mohammed Brahmi's coffin was carried by soldiers to Jellaz cemetery and buried next to Chokri Belaid, a fellow politician who was killed in February. Brahmi's widow and five children accompanied the coffin on its route through the capital.
"Down with the party of the Brotherhood," chanted mourners, referring to the ruling Ennahda Party's affiliation with the regional Muslim Brotherhood religious group. "The people demand the fall of the regime."
The latest assassination Thursday has exacerbated the distrust between the ruling coalition led by moderate Islamists and the opposition, which has demanded the dissolution of the government because of its failures to rein in Islamic extremists, turn around the economy and manage the transition to democracy.
Speaking next to the grave, activist lawyer Nacer Laouini called on army chief of staff Gen. Mohamed Salah Hamdi to protect the people from the Islamists — a clear reference to the recent events in Egypt, where the military ousted the elected Islamist president.
"The head of the army is here. We ask the army to be on the side of the people as it always has been and protect Tunisians against Ennahda," he said.
Tunisia's army, however, has shown little inclination to involve itself in politics up until now, unlike its Egyptian counterpart.
The crowd sang the national anthem several times and with much emotion. But their numbers were nowhere near the hundreds of thousands that came out for Belaid's funeral in February.
Temperatures in Tunis at midday were a blazing 35 degrees (95F), and the funeral took place during the fasting month of Ramadan, when most Tunisians don't eat or drink during daylight hours.
Following the funeral, hundreds demonstrated in front of the constituent assembly, calling for its dissolution and were met by volleys of tear gas by police who chased demonstrators through the streets.
Opposition politician Mongi Rahoui was also beaten by police, according to local news media.
Brahmi's assassination has spawned protests and further hardened opposition sentiments holding the moderate Islamists elected in 2011 responsible for the lack of security in the country.
Late Friday, a 48-year-old political activist with the same leftist coalition as the assassinated Brahmi died after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister during a demonstration outside a police station in the southern mining town of Gafsa.
The head of the assembly, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, called for calm and urged the 54 members of the elected body who have withdrawn in protest to reconsider their decision so that the work on writing a new constitution could be finished by the end of August.
"It is impossible to dissolve the assembly now and let all our efforts of the last two years go up in smoke," he said Saturday evening.
The Interior Ministry, citing physical evidence and witnesses, said Friday that Brahmi's assassin was Boubakr Hakim, a known militant and weapons smuggler who was part of the same al-Qaida linked cell alleged to have murdered Belaid back in February.
Hakim is alleged to have shot Brahmi 14 times outside his home Thursday in full view of his family with the same 9 mm semi-automatic handgun used to kill Belaid. He then sped away on the back of a moped.
The Saturday morning bomb blast caused no injuries and only blew out windows in the area but it represents a dangerous escalation for a country that has yet to experience serious terrorist incidents like its neighbors Algeria and Libya.
"As we were leaving the station for a routine patrol, we saw a suspicious package under the car," police officer Mourad Mliki told The Associated Press. "We went back to the station to tell our superiors and there was a huge explosion — it was set off remotely."
Mohammed Ali Aroui, the police spokesman, told the state news agency that the remains of the explosive device were being examined by a special team.
"The explosion was so strong it was like an earthquake," said Walid Khammar, a fish seller living near the police station whose car was damaged by the blast.
Tunisians overthrew a longtime secular dictator in January 2011, inspiring the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring across the region. The long-repressed Ennahda party dominated subsequent elections and now rules in coalition with two secular parties.
With two political assassinations and a faltering economy, the opposition says the leadership has lost its legitimacy and is demanding a new government.
The opposition accuses Ennahda of turning a blind eye to the rise of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis, many of whom are willing to use violence to push their views.
The government had said it did not want to replicate the repressive anti-Islamist policies of overthrown dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but when thousands of Salafis attacked the U.S. Embassy in September over an anti-Islamic film produced in the U.S., the government cracked down on the movement.
In April, soldiers patrolling in a mountainous region near Algeria tripped a roadside bomb causing severe injuries and sparking a search of the region that revealed the remains of training camps and more hidden explosives.