Tunisian secularists protest against Islamist rulers

TUNIS Mon Oct 22, 2012 12:35pm EDT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Thousands of secularist protesters accused Tunisia's Islamist government on Monday of undermining a transition to democracy by failing to stem violence after a secular politician was killed in political violence last week.

Tension has been growing between Islamists and secularists since the Islamist Ennahda Movement won an election after the toppling of secular autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last year in the first of the "Arab Spring" uprisings.

A secular politician was killed last Thursday in clashes between secularists and a group of Islamists close to Ennahda in the town of Tataouine.

On Monday, about 5,000 protesters filled Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, a focal point of last year's revolution, carrying banners that read "No fear, no horror, power belongs to the people", "No to emerging dictatorship .. not for religious dictatorship" and "No political and religious violence".

They also chanted the slogan of the Arab Spring revolutions, "The people want to bring down the regime!".

Tunisia's opposition have said that the killing of Lofi Nakd, a member of the Nida Touns party in Tataouine, is the first political killing in Tunisia since the revolution.

"Ennahda is responsible for the assassination of a member of our party in Tataouine ... Tunisia may fall into chaos under the rule of the Islamists," Nida Touns leader Beji Caid Essebsi, who was prime minister in a transitional administration that took over after the revolution, said on Friday.

While Islamists did not play a prominent role in the uprising, a struggle over the role of religion in government has since polarized politics in Tunisia, a country long been considered one of the Arab region's most secular.

Ennahda, which won Tunisia's first free election almost exactly a year ago on October 23, is under pressure from both hardline Salafi Muslims calling for the introduction of Islamic law and secular opposition parties determined to prevent this.

Salafis led an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis last month in which four people died, after an anti-Islam film made in California caused anger across the region.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said last week that Tunisia was failing to crack down on Islamist violence against advocates of secularism including journalists and artists.

"Violence has spread and the government has not acted ... It is a serious threat to the democratic transition in Tunisia," Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the secular Al Massar Party, told Reuters during the demonstration.

(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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