Tunisian Opposition Leader's Funeral Draws Thousands

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TUNIS -- In an outpouring of grief and anger, thousands of Tunisians filled the capital's main cemetery on Friday to bury Chokri Belaid, an opposition politician whose assassination this week stirred fears in Tunisia and throughout the region of political violence that could subvert the Arab uprisings born here two years ago.

In bracing scenes that recalled the 2011 revolution against Tunisia's autocratic leader -- and in numbers not seen since -- mourners directed much of their anger at Tunisia's post-revolutionary government and the Islamist party that leads it, deepening the sense of a growing crisis.

With much of the country quieted by the largest labor strike in decades -- called in honor of Mr. Belaid, a veteran organizer -- clashes between protesters and the police raged outside the walls of the cemetery, angering the mourners as tear gas canisters dropped near the graves.  

Witnesses said the clashes started after young men vandalized cars. The violence, along with numerous robberies and fights during the overwhelmingly peaceful march, caused some to wonder whether Mr. Belaid's supporters were being provoked – although no one was sure by whom.

 By the graveside, Hamma Hammami, another longtime organizer, shouted a farewell into a megaphone as military helicopters circled. "My brother, my dear friend Chokri. We will miss you," he said. "Tunisians, come together. The revolution continues." 

A steady stream of supporters also traveled to Mr. Belaid's home, where a circle of flowers and other mementos marked the spot where he was shot multiple times at close range in his car on Wednesday. No suspects have been arrested, further raising fears of a broader conflagration.

"I'm afraid the country will descend into chaos," said Nuzha ben Yayha, a mourner who came to pay her respects.

The country's labor federation called the first general strike in more than three decades to coincide with the burial, adding to a combustible mix of passions just two years after the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali signaled the beginning of the Arab revolts sweeping the region.

The official TAP news agency said the national Army had been ordered to "secure" Mr. Belaid's funeral "and ensure the protection of participants" while the trade union federation had called for a "peaceful" general strike "in order not to serve the objectives of Tunisia's enemies who had planned Chokri Belaid's assassination."

The embassy of France, the former colonial power, said on its Web site closed its schools in the capital on Friday and Saturday for fear of renewed outbursts of violence.

On Thursday, protesters clashed with riot police officers in several cities. Here in Tunis, shuttered stores, tear gas and running street battles recreated the atmosphere of that uprising against Mr. Ben Ali but with none of the hope. Instead, many worried about a growing instability following the killing.

Adding to the uncertainties, Prime Minister Hamadi Jabali said Friday he still intended to replace the Cabinet with technocrats not affiliated with any party despite objections by his own governing party, the Islamist-led Ennahda, which rejected that idea on Thursday.

"I am going down that road. Hopefully with the approval of all parties," Mr. Jabali told reporters. "We must work for the best of the country."

He did not disclose the names of any new ministers and said approval of the National Constituent Assembly was unnecessary because he was not formally dissolving the government.

Mr. Jabali's jousting with fellow members of Ennahda revealed growing strains within a movement that has promoted its blend of Islamist politics and pluralism as a model for the region.

"The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party," Abdelhamid Jelassi, Ennahda's vice president, said in a statement reported on the party's Web site. "We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with other parties about forming a coalition government."

The troubles in Tunisia unsettled the region and endangered a country that was credited with avoiding the chaos plaguing some its neighbors. In the same way some had held up Tunisia's transition as an example, politicians in the region studied Mr. Belaid's assassination and saw a broader warning.

Mr. Belaid's death was seen as a blow to the country's turbulent transition, raising the possibility that the political violence in Tunisia had reached a dangerous new level.

In the southern mining city of Gafsa, riots broke out on Thursday and the police fired tear gas at demonstrators who threw stones, a local radio station reported. The city is known as a powerful base of support for Mr. Belaid, who was a fierce advocate for the miners.

A regional headquarters of Ennahda was burned down in the town of Siliana, according to local news media, one of more than a dozen party offices attacked by protesters in the last two days.

In one of the most disturbing aspects of the situation, Mr. Belaid had himself warned just before his death about Tunisia's troubling turn toward violence and called for a national dialogue to combat it. He took special aim at Ennahda, accusing the Islamist group of turning a blind eye to crimes perpetrated by hard-line Islamists known as Salafis, including attacking Sufi shrines and liquor stores.

The governing party has condemned the assassination. Anxiety about the assassination reverberated in Egypt, where political feuds have been eclipsed by street clashes between protesters and the riot police. Security officials said plainclothes guards had been assigned to guard the homes of prominent opponents of Egypt's Islamist-dominated government. The worries were amplified because of a fatwa issued by a hard-line Egyptian cleric saying that opponents of President Mohamed Morsi should be killed. The fatwa specifically mentioned Mohamed ElBaradei, a former United Nations diplomat and leader of Egypt's largest secular-leaning opposition bloc, which led him to request the protection.

"Regime silent as another fatwa gives license to kill opposition in the name of Islam," Mr. ElBaradei wrote in a Twitter message. "Religion yet again used and abused."

Kareem Fahim reported from Tunis; David D. Kirkpatrick from Antakya, Turkey; and Alan Cowell from Paris. Monica Marks contributed reporting from Tunis, and Rick Gladstone from New York.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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