POLICE clashed with gangs of youths in the Tunisian capital yesterday as hundreds of thousands of people gathered for the funeral of the assassinated opposition politician Chokri Belaid.
Tunisia ground to a halt as trade unions allied to Mr Belaid – a socialist politician – called a general strike. National carrier Air Tunis cancelled all its flights.
The murder of Mr Belaid, gunned down outside his home on Wednesday, has exacerbated Tunisia’s political crisis and escalated tensions in the North African nation which ignited the Arab Spring.
The killing of lawyer Mr Belaid, 48, a harsh critic of the Islamist government and Popular Front member, sparked days of rioting by his supporters, who hold the ruling Ennahda party partly responsible for his death.
Mr Belaid’s funeral procession passed into the cemetery amid a scene of chaos caught live on television. Hundreds of young men threw stones at police trying to stop them destroying car and police responded with tear gas. Witnesses described the young men in tracksuits – many armed with clubs and machetes – as hooligans seeking to take advantage of the turmoil surrounding the funeral.
“These kids are uncontrollable and don’t follow any political ideology,” said Moncef Chebbi, 68, a retired computer programmer at the funeral.
A spokesman for the interior ministry said 132 people were arrested and around a dozen cars set on fire. He said they were being questioned to see the violence had been orchestrated.
Once the standard bearer in the region for its political consensus, Tunisia’s transition to democracy since the fall of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali two years ago has been shaken by a poor economy and political turmoil pitting governing Islamists against secular parties, sometimes violently.
Efforts to stem Tunisia’s worst crisis since the revolution have so far failed and the anti-government sentiment at the cemetery was palpable. Before the body arrived, there was a brief scuffle when officials identified as being with the governing coalition were stopped by the crowd from entering.
The army, one of the few state institutions still holding respect, provided security for the funeral procession and could play the role of a stabilising force in the coming weeks.
Mr Belaid had accused the Ennahda party of exhorting thugs to attack opposition rallies. His family and allies accuse the party of complicity in his murder. Although they have offered no proof, the allegations have fanned popular discontent.
“We can’t accept that they assassinate freedom, that they assassinate democracy – that’s what they are doing – we are burying a martyr,” said Mohammed Souissi, a 63-year-old veterinarian, at the cemetery.
More than a dozen headquarters of the Ennahda party were attacked overnight on Thursday in towns across Tunisia. Schools, shops, banks and other institutions were all closed following the general strike. Soon after Mr Belaid’s killing, Tunisia’s prime minister offered to replace the government in response to long-standing opposition demands, but that attempt seems to have backfired as Ennahda subsequently rejected his proposal – exposing divisions within the party itself between moderates and hard-liners.
Nonetheless, prime minister Hamadi Jebali insisted last night that he still intended to forge ahead with his goal of installing a technocratic leadership. He said he would simply replace existing Cabinet ministers with non-political experts instead of dissolving the government.
Mr Belaid’s death came as relations between the government and the opposition had deteriorated. Ennahda was long repressed under the secular rule of Ben Ali, but after his overthrow, the well-organised movement won subsequent elections.