Tunisian opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi has been shot dead outside his home in Tunis in the second such assassination this year, setting off violent protests against the Islamist-led government in the capital and elsewhere.
“This criminal gang has killed the free voice of Brahmi,” his widow Mbarka Brahmi said yesterday following the murder, without specifying who she thought was behind the shooting.
Mr Brahmi’s sister later accused the main Islamist Ennahda party of being behind the killing. “Ennahda killed my brother,” Souhiba Brahmi said. Ennahda has condemned the murder.
The politician’s wife said Mr Brahmi had left the house after receiving a telephone call. She heard shots and found his body lying on the ground outside as two men fled on a motorcycle.
Mr Brahmi belonged to the secular, Arab nationalist Popular Front party, whose then-leader, Chokri Belaid, was killed in a similar way on February 6. His death ignited the worst violence in Tunisia since president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fell in 2011.
Divisions between Islamists and their secular opponents have deepened since the popular uprising against Ben Ali, which unleashed unrest across the Arab world, unseating rulers in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and leading to a civil war in Syria.
Mr Brahmi, 58, was a critic of the Ennahda-led ruling coalition and a member of the Constituent Assembly that has drafted a new constitution for the North African nation of 11 million.
The chairman of the Constituent Assembly said today would be a day of mourning for Mr Brahmi.
Thousands of people protested outside the interior ministry in the capital, Tunis, and a hospital in the Ariana district where Mr Brahmi’s body had been taken after the killing.
“Down with the rule of the Islamists,” they chanted, and demanded that the government resign.
Big crowds accompanied Mr Brahmi’s body when it was taken later for autopsy at another Tunis hospital. Despite the presence of hundreds of soldiers and police, protesters smashed cars and broke the windows of the hospital in Ariana, witnesses said.
Similar demonstrations erupted in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Tunisian revolution, where protesters set fire to two local Ennahda party offices.
“Thousands have taken to the streets. People have blocked roads and set tyres alight,” said Mehdi Horchani, a resident of Sidi Bouzid. “People are very angry.”
Tunisia’s biggest labour organisation, UGTT, called for a general strike today in protest at Mr Brahmi’s killing. Its secretary-general, Hussein Abbasi, earlier predicted that the assassination would lead the country into a “bloodbath”.
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, said Mr Brahmi’s assassination was aimed at “halting Tunisia’s democratic process and killing the only successful model in the region, especially after the violence in Egypt, Syria and Libya”.
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 a stuttering economy and has come under fire from secularists who accuse it of failing to curb the activities of radical Salafi Islamists.
The government blamed Mr Belaid’s assassination on an unidentified group of Salafi militants, saying six of them are still on the run.
The Egyptian army’s overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July following mass protests against him has further energised the anti-Islamist opposition in Tunisia.
A protest movement known as Tamarod, modelled on the Egyptian group of the same name that orchestrated the anti-Morsi demonstrations, has called for rallies to topple the government.
But Mr Ghannouchi dismissed the plan. “Tunisia will not follow the Egyptian scenario,” he said. “We will hold on.”
After the killing of Mr Brahmi, who had applauded the Egyptian army’s removal of Mr Morsi, the leader of his Popular Front called for non-violent action to remove the government.
“We call on the Tunisian people to pursue peaceful civil disobedience in all the cities of the republic to bring down the government and the Constituent Assembly and form a national salvation government,” Hamma Hammami said.