Tunisia faces general strike as political crisis deepens

AFP , Friday 8 Feb 2013

Tens of thousands are expected to protest in Tunisia to coincide with the funeral of assassinated opposition leader Chokri Belaid, following a UGTT call for general strike

Tunisia protests escaping tear gas fired by police forces during the funeral of opposition leader Choukri Belaid, Friday, 8 February 2013 (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Tunisia faces a general strike Friday, with tens of thousands expected to take to the streets after the murder this week of a leftist opposition leader that sparked violent clashes with police.

The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) called the strike to coincide with the funeral of Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and vocal critic of the ruling Ennahda party who was shot dead outside his home Wednesday by a lone gunman.

The strike call from Tunisia's most powerful trade union comes after the murder triggered demonstrations in both the capital Tunis and the central mining region of Gafsa, amid a deepening political crisis.

Belaid will be buried after weekly prayers in the Muslim country, where a long-established secular tradition has been countered by the rise of one of the region's most powerful Islamist parties.

After an explosion of public outrage over the murder, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who is from the Ennahda party, Wednesday said in a televised address that he would form a new administration of non-political technocrats.

But Ennahda's parliamentary leader Sahbi Atig said on Thursday his bloc of MPs had rejected the plans, laying bare deep divisions within the Islamist party and furthering a confused political situation.

"We have rejected this proposal... The head of the government took the decision without consulting the (ruling) coalition or the Ennahda movement," he said.

Any reshuffle would have to be confirmed by the national assembly.

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

"There's no place for violence in Tunisia's democracy," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters 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."

In the capital Thursday, police fired tear gas at demonstrators who staged a march despite a huge deployment of security forces in Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Thousands had gathered there Wednesday in scenes reminiscent of the revolt, on a day when violence in the capital left one policeman dead and protesters torched and ransacked Ennahda offices in a number of towns, including Gafsa.

In Gafsa Thursday, protesters lobbed petrol bombs at police who responded with volleys of tear gas.

Tunisian lawyers, judges and some teachers had already started a strike on Thursday. Courtrooms stood empty at the main courthouse in Tunis, while hundreds of people gathered outside Belaid's home.

Ennahda has been accused by Belaid's family of being behind the killing -- a charge it vigorously denies.

The Tunisian League for Defence of Human Rights said threats and intimidation were continuing under the Ennahda-dominated government, and called for the protection of political figures.

Jebali is considered a moderate within his party and has for months been locked in negotiations with the secular parties in the coalition who have demanded that some ministries be assigned to independents, a move rejected by Ennahda hardliners.

Four opposition groups including Belaid's Popular Front bloc said they were pulling out of the National Constituent Assembly, elected in October 2011 but which has failed to draft a new constitution.

Pro-Ennahda militias have been accused of organising attacks on secular opposition groups already at loggerheads with Ennahda over the constitution.

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