This was brought in sharp focus with the massive response of as many as 1.5 million people, according to the media, to a call by the Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT) for a general strike Feb. 8 to protest the killing two days earlier of opposition leader Chokri Belaid in the capital Tunis.
“All trade unionists in all regions of the country participated,” Kacem Afaya, UGTT deputy general secretary, said by phone from Tunis Feb. 13. The UGTT has a membership of 500,000 and is the main trade union federation in Tunisia.
What the Feb. 10 British Guardian described as “an assassination in broad daylight of a type not seen in Tunisia since colonial times” triggered a wave of nationwide protests that has unsettled the government coalition elected in October 2011 and deepened the rift among bourgeois forces contending for power.
Tunisia was a colony of France until 1956. As an independent country, it has remained largely under France’s imperialist domination.
Belaid, 48, was a central figure of the bourgeois, liberal opposition. The head of the Democratic Patriots, he was a founding leader of the Popular Front, a “left-leaning alliance comprising a dozen parties and national personalities,” according to the French daily Le Parisien.
The evening before his assassination, Belaid had denounced the Ennahda-led government for condoning increased violent assaults by Islamist groups. Targets have included women, artists, journalists, bourgeois liberal figures and trade unions.
“As a lawyer, Belaid had defended many workers and trade unionists, sometimes for free,” Afaya said.
“Political assassinations like that of Belaid are a threat for all of Tunisia,” added Afaya. “The UGTT has been the target of these militias. General Secretary [Houssine Abassi] has received death threats.”
Ennahda, an Islamist party, was brought to power in the October 2011 elections.
No one has claimed responsibility for Belaid’s death. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali called Belaid’s assassination a “heinous crime against the Tunisian people.”
As news of his assassination spread, thousands took to the streets across the country. There were many clashes with police over the following days and more than a dozen Ennahda offices were attacked.
On Feb. 8, the day of Belaid’s funeral, most public transportation was paralyzed, including airports. An overwhelming majority of shops and industries were closed, with the exception of emergency services, drugstores and grocery stores selling basic goods, according to the Nouvel Observateur website.
Some 40,000 joined the funeral cortege in Tunis. Dozens of demonstrations occurred in the rest of the country.
The march to the Tunis cemetery became a massive anti-government demonstration, with chants of “Bread, freedom and social justice” and “Clear off!” being revived from the 2011 protests against Ben Ali.
Some 10,000 gathered in Sidi Bouzid, the central Tunisia town where the uprising against the Ben Ali regime started in December 2011.
The scope of the popular outpouring is a reflection of the conditions Tunisia’s working people face.
“The country’s economic situation is worsening, with unemployment officially at 17% but far higher among the young,” the Guardian wrote Feb. 8. “Lawyers and campaigners say torture continues in prisons, the justice system and administration remains corrupt.”
Some 6,000 Ennahda supporters attended a counterrally Feb. 9 in Tunis.
The response of Ennahda founder and central leader Rashed Ghannoushi to Belaid’s assassination was different than Jebali’s. “These kind of things happen in revolutions,” Ghannoushi told an Algerian daily Feb. 10.
The evening of Belaid’ assassination, Jebali disbanded the government and announced his intention to put together a “government of technocrats” with no political affiliation until new elections, as a way to placate the unrest.
The country’s main political parties initially rejected the move, including Ennahda. Jebali has been engaged in intense negotiations since then.
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