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Political assassination unsettles fragile Tunisian democracy

As political turmoil rises in nearby Egypt, the assassination of a former opposition leader has roiled Tunisians, sending them into the streets to demand the transition stay on track.

By Correspondent / July 26, 2013

Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement demonstrate as they chant slogans and hold a picture of assassinated politician Mohamed Brahmi during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, Friday, July 26. Mohamed Brahmi, a former leader of the leftist People's Movement party, was shot dead yesterday morning outside his house in Tunis by unknown assailants, who reportedly fled on a motorcycle.

Amine Landoulsi/AP

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Until yesterday, Tunisia looked to be on track toward democracy. But the murder of an opposition leader – the second since Tunisians toppled their former dictator two years ago – has enraged the country and stoked political feuding, throwing the future of its already halting transition into question.

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Mohamed Brahmi, a former leader of the leftist People’s Movement party, was shot dead yesterday morning outside his house in Tunis by unknown assailants, who reportedly fled on a motorcycle.

While a government critic, Mr. Brahmi was a relatively minor player on the Tunisian political scene – his party, which he left this month, held just two of 217 constituent assembly seats. But his killing has touched a nerve. It eerily resembles the February murder of another opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, and it comes as political turmoil in Egypt raises tensions in Tunisia too.

Tunisia’s interior minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, said today that the gun used to kill Brahmi was also used to murder Belaid, Reuters reports. He named a suspected weapons smuggler and Islamic extremist, Boubacar Hakim, as the prime suspect in Brahmi’s killing.

For now, though, there’s still no conclusive explanation for either murder. Opposition leaders have accused the ruling Islamist Ennahda party of neglecting security, and stepped up their calls to dissolve both the government and assembly. That would most likely wreak havoc on plans to vote on a new constitution in the coming months.

Much depends on ordinary Tunisians, whose various inclinations to demonstrate, riot, go on strike, or simply go on living have been key so far to determining the course of change in the country.

That change began in January 2011 with protests that ended 23 years of dictatorship under former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia. The following October, Ennahda swept constituent assembly elections and now heads a coalition government with two secularist parties.

Today, however, Tunisians increasingly blame that government for persistent economic malaise and shaky security. Many also complain of delays in drafting a new constitution to set up a democratic system and encourage more foreign investment.

Public morale took a new blow in February with the still-unsolved murder of Mr. Belaid, a leader of the leftist Popular Front coalition. His death triggered a political crisis that prompted Ennahda to reform the cabinet to include more politically neutral figures.

Yet the party’s stock has continued to fall. Tunisians have gravitated in particular toward Nidaa Tounes, a secularist party led by Beji Caid Essebsi, a former minister under Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who is credited with steering Tunisia through a rocky 2011.

In recent weeks, the wholesale overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government by a combination of street demonstrations and military putsch has appeared to encourage some Tunisian secularists – including Mr. Essebsi – to call for Tunisia’s ruling institutions to be dismantled, albeit in an orderly fashion.

Then came yesterday’s murder. Within hours, demonstrators had taken to streets around the country, and the Ennahda party office in the town of Sidi Bouzid – whose governorate Brahmi had represented in the assembly – was reported burned. Tunisia’s main trade union declared a general strike for today. Shops and banks were closed this morning and all flights to or from Tunis’ airport were cancelled, Reuters reported.

Ennahda and President Moncef Marzouki have condemned Brahmi’s murder and appealed for calm, while some opposition figures have demanded a national unity government and a new roadmap for elections and the constitution. The Popular Front has also called for acts of non-violent civil disobedience to push those changes through.

Where Tunisia goes from here remains to be seen. Brahmi’s funeral is planned for Saturday. Today, demonstrators – many against the government, and some for it - were reportedly back in the streets.

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