Funeral of Tunisian opposition leader begins


Thousands take to the streets for 10km funeral procession of Shokri Belaid as army is deployed to prevent clashes

Thousands have flocked to the streets of Tunisia’s capital for the burial procession of a slain opposition leader whose murder plunged the country into a political crisis and fresh post-revolution violence.

Around 3,000 mourners gathered outside a public building in Tunis’ southern suburbs of Djebel Jelloud where Shokri Belaid’s coffin lay covered in flowers ahead of the afternoon burial.

The capital was at near standstill amid a general strike called by the North African country’s biggest union to protest his murder, blamed by the opposition on the ruling party, Ennahda.

Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Tunis, said the strike “is already causing loads of problems. Tunis air has suspended all flights – the airport remains open but most of the international flights are affected, public transportation is at a minimum, shops are closed and supporters of the union are already rallying in the square.

A big army force is out to prevent any clashes between protesters… this is the biggest concern, to have casualties. It could plunge Tunisia back into more violence and uncertainty.

– Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra

“A big army force is out to prevent any clashes between protesters… This is the biggest concern, to have casualties. It could plunge Tunisia back into more violence and uncertainty.”

Belaid’s widow has insisted that women should be allowed to attend the funeral – which is unusual in Tunisia.

One of the slain opposition leader’s daughters fainted in chaotic and emotional scenes as the funeral cortege prepared to set off in a 10km procession to the cemetery.

Secular versus religious

Tunisia has a long-established secular tradition which has been countered by the rise of one of the region’s most powerful Islamist parties.

“The growing rift between religious and secular parties is creating political deadlock,” Ahelbarra said. “All the pressing issues like the drafting of a new constitution and setting a final date for the elections are likely to be delayed until a deal is reached.

The police and army have been put on alert to prevent any outbreaks of violence and to “deal with any troublemakers”, the presidential spokesman Adnan Mancer announced late on Thursday.

The strike comes on the back of Ennahda rejecting Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali’s proposal to dissolve the government and install a cabinet of technocrats in a bid to restore calm after Shokri’s assassination.

“The seculars are concerned, saying that Ennahda should not build an autocratic system, while the party says they have entered a coalition with seculars. But the problem is not everyone here buys into that rhetoric,” Ahelbarra reported.

“They are calling for Ennahda to dissolve the government and install a technocratic system otherwise they will continue to fight.”

Calls for calm

The US has urged Tunisian leaders to come together to resolve the tensions and called for calm.

“The growing rift between religious and secular parties is creating political deadlock… people are concerned that Tunisia could plunge back into violence and anarchy.

– Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra

“There’s no place for violence in Tunisia’s democracy,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Thursday.

“It won’t resolve the issues that Tunisians face, and it’s not an appropriate response to murder. It’s only going to bring more violence.”

As the protests intensified, four Tunisian opposition groups, including the Popular Front, of which the Belaid’s Democratic Patriots is a component, announced they were pulling out of the national assembly.

Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian president, cut short a visit to France and said he would fight those who opposed the political transition in his country.

The assassination comes as Tunisia is struggling to maintain stability and revive its economy after its longtime leader was overthrown in an uprising two years ago.

No one has claimed responsibility for the killing of Belaid, who had accused authorities of not doing enough to stop violence by ultraconservatives who have targeted mausoleums, art exhibits and other things seen as out of keeping with their strict interpretation of Islam.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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