Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said on Wednesday he would form a government of technocrats without political affiliations, after the murder of opposition leader Chokri Belaid sparked violent protests.
“I have decided to form a government of competent nationals without political affiliation, which will have a mandate limited to managing the affairs of the country until elections are held in the shortest possible time,” Jebali said in a televised address to the nation.
He did not explicitly say that he was dissolving the existing government, nor did he name future ministers or set a date for the cabinet reshuffle, which must be confirmed by the national assembly.
Jebali’s announcement comes after a months-long impasse between his Islamist party Ennahda and its secular coalition partners over the distribution of ministries.
Jebali said that plans to form a government of technocrats had stalled before the “odious [killing] that has shocked our people.”
[Belaid’s] assassination has quickened my decision, for which I assume full responsibility before God and before our people
The secular parties in government have been demanding that key ministries be assigned to independents, a move rejected by Ennahda hardliners, including party head Rached Ghannouchi.
Jebali is considered a moderate within his party and favourable to the justice and foreign affairs ministries being allocated to non-political figures.
Planned fresh polls are unable to take place before the adoption of a new constitution, whose drafting has also failed to make progress because of wrangling within the National Constituent Assembly elected in October 2011.
Furious protesters on Wednesday erected barricades in central Tunis and threw rocks at police who tried to disperse them with tear gas in new clashes after the assassination of a prominent opposition figure.
A national guard tank fired rounds of tear gas at the young protesters, who used bins, coffee tables, barbed wire and barriers to build the barricades on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the epicentre of Tunisia’s revolution two years ago.
Security reinforcements arrived after about 20 minutes of skirmishes, and police wearing helmets and armed with clubs charged some 150 protesters, who fled into the neighbouring streets.
Clouds of tear gas were visible in parts of the city centre, and by late afternoon there was a heavy security presence, with police bikes and lorries patrolling Habib Bourguiba Avenue, which was closed to traffic.
A Tunisian policeman was killed during clashes between the security forces and protesters that erupted in the capital after the assassination of an opposition leader, the interior ministry said on Thursday.
“Policeman Lotfi Alzaar, 46, died on Wednesday afternoon... after sustaining a chest injury caused by rocks thrown during an operation to disperse a group of protesters in Bab El-Jazira” in central Tunis, the ministry said.
“These protesters were in the process of ransacking shops,” it added.
Chokri Belaid, a prominent figure in the coalition of leftist opposition parties and outspoken critic of the government, was gunned down as he left his home early on Wednesday.
The cold-blooded killing, which his family blamed on the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, sparked outrage, with thousands of people massing outside the interior ministry in Tunis, and in other cities.
In Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of the 2011 revolution that toppled ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, some 2,000 protesters took to the streets to denounce the murder.
The demonstrators were mostly peaceful, but about 200 people tried to storm the police headquarters and police used tear gas to keep them at bay.
Protesters also torched the Ennahda party office in Mezzouna, near Sidi Bouzid, ransacked another in the mining town of Gafsa, where they tore up Ennahda flags, and set fire to a party office in the northeastern town of Kef, witnesses said.
The murder of Belaid comes at a time of rising violence in Tunisia stoked by political and social discontent two years after the mass uprising that forced Ben Ali to flee and touched off the Arab Spring.
The United States on Wednesday denounced the killing of Belaid, describing it as an “outrageous and cowardly act.”
“The United States strongly condemns this morning’s assassination of Chokri Belaid, a Tunisian political party leader and a prominent opposition figure under the (Zine El Abidine) Ben Ali regime,” the embassy in Tunis said.
“There is no justification for this outrageous and cowardly act, and political violence has no place in Tunisia’s democratic transition,” it added.
The embassy urged Tunisia’s Islamist-led government to conduct a “fair, transparent and professional investigation” into the killing, and bring those responsible to justice in accordance with Tunisian law and international norms.
Belaid, a prominent figure in the coalition of leftist opposition parties and an outspoken critic of the government, was gunned down as he left his home early on Wednesday.
The cold-blooded killing, which his family blamed on the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, sparked outrage, with thousands of people massing outside the interior ministry in the capital and other Tunisian cities.
Prominent Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid was shot dead outside his home in Tunis on Wednesday, sparking angry protests by his supporters and attacks on offices of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party.
President Moncef Marzouki denounced the killing of Belaid, an outspoken critic of his government, as an “odious assassination”, while Ennahda chief Rached Ghannouchi told reporters the killers wanted a “bloodbath” in Tunisia.
The cold-blooded killing sparked outrage, with some 2,000 people gathering outside the interior ministry in Tunis, shouting abuse at Ennahda, which they accuse of being behind the assassination of the 48-year-old leftist leader.
Protesters torched the Ennahda party office in Mezzouna, near the central town of Sidi Bouzid, and ransacked another in the mining town of Gafsa, where they tore up Ennahda flags, witnesses said.
Some 2,000 protesters also took to the streets of Sidi Bouzid itself, birthplace of the 2011 revolution that toppled ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, where they were met by police tear gas, witnesses said.
Marzouki deplored the killing in an impassioned speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg that brought tears to the eyes of politicians.
“This odious assassination of a political leader who I knew well and who was my friend ... is a threat, it is a letter sent that will not be received,” the president said, insisting the murder would not tip Tunisia to unrest.
“We refuse this message and we will continue to unmask the enemies of the revolution,” he said, though Tunisia’s path was “paved with hurdles,” including “orchestrated verbal violence, burnt preachers” and the murder of Belaid.
A presidential aide said Marzouki had scrapped plans to head from Strasbourg to Cairo to join a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and instead would fly home immediately to deal with the crisis.
The family of Belaid, who headed the opposition Democratic Patriots party and was a harsh critic of Tunisia’s Islamist-led government, was in no doubt as to who was behind the murder.
“My brother was assassinated. I am desperate and depressed,” said Abdelmajid Belaid.
“I accuse (Ennahda leader) Rached Ghannouchi of assassinating my brother,” he told reporters.
Ghannouchi rejected the accusations and said the killing was linked to the “settling of political scores”.
“(The killers) want a bloodbath but they won’t succeed” in creating one, Ghannouchi told reporters.
“We can only condemn this cowardly act, which is aimed at (undermining) the revolution and the stability of Tunisia,” he added.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali described the murder as “an act of terrorism”.
He said a gunman wearing the traditional hooded long burnous robe shot Belaid with three bullets fired at close range as he left his Tunis home Wednesday morning.
Belaid’s wife gave a similar account of the killing in an interview with the private radio station Mosaique FM.
Jebali told the same radio station everything possible would be done to swiftly arrest the murderer.
“The Tunisian people are not used to such things. This is a serious turn ... our duty to all, as a government, as a people, is to be wise and not fall into the criminal trap which seeks to push the country into chaos.”
France’s President Francois Hollande said the murder had robbed Tunisia of “one of its most courageous and free voices.”
The murder of Belaid comes at a time when Tunisia is witnessing a rise in violence fed by political and social discontent two years after the mass uprising that toppled Ben Ali.
Several opposition parties and trade unions have accused pro-Islamist groups of orchestrating clashes or attacks against them.
Belaid’s party forms part of the Popular Front coalition of leftist parties that has emerged in opposition to the Tunisia government.