TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia braced for clashes on Friday, with the capital shut down by a general strike and the army deployed for the funeral of a slain opposition leader expected to draw tens of thousands of mourners, and potentially many more.
Once the standard bearer in the region for its political consensus, Tunisia is embroiled in its worst crisis since the 2011 revolution that overthrew its long-ruling dictator and inspired the Arab Spring. The country's transition to democracy has been shaken by a sour economy and political turmoil pitting the country's governing Islamists against secular parties, sometimes violently.
Murdered politician Chokri Belaid, a 48-year-old lawyer and harsh government critic, had accused the ruling Islamist Ennahda party of resorting to thugs to attack opposition rallies. His family and allies accuse the party of complicity in his Wednesday killing. Although they have offered no proof, the allegations have sharply raised tensions ahead of the funeral.
"Goodbye comrade," shouted a headline in the daily La Presse.
More than a dozen headquarters of the Ennahda party were attacked overnight in towns around the country, reported Tunisian media. Schools, shops, banks and other institutions were all shuttered following the general strike called by the main labor union in protest over the assassination.
The decision by the army to provide security for the funeral procession may be key in preventing the situation from degenerating into violence as it remains a respected institution in the country, as opposed to the much-reviled police.
Several times in the past year, the army has had to be called out in rioting towns to replace police forces that only seem to further antagonize protesters.
Tunisia's prime minister offered to replace the government after Belaid's killing in response to long standing opposition demands, but that attempt may have backfired as his own ruling Islamist part rejected his decision — exposing divisions within the party itself between moderates and hardliners.
The Ministry of Interior put out a statement Friday urging calm, but the police force has been a major target of protesters over the past few days.
The ministry building itself on Friday morning was ringed by several lawyers of iron barriers and barbed wire extending across the city's signature Bourguiba Avenue, where it has been a focus of protests.
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