Tunisian Islamists rally to show "power of street"

TUNIS Sat Feb 9, 2013 11:34am EST

1 of 13. Protesters throw stones amidst smoke during clashes with riot police near the Interior Ministry in Tunis February 8, 2013. Tens of thousands of mourners chanted anti-Islamist slogans on Friday at the Tunis funeral of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid, whose assassination has plunged Tunisia deeper into political crisis.

Credit: Reuters/Anis Mili

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Thousands of Islamists marched in Tunis on Saturday in a show of strength, a day after the funeral of an assassinated secular politician drew the biggest crowds seen on the streets since Tunisia's uprising two years ago.

About 6,000 supporters of the ruling Ennahda movement rallied to back their leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who was the target of angry slogans raised by mourners at Friday's mass funeral of Chokri Belaid, a rights lawyer and opposition leader.

"The people want Ennahda again," the Islamists chanted, waving Tunisian and party flags as they marched towards the Interior Ministry on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the city centre.

The demonstration was dwarfed by the tens of thousands who had turned out in Tunis and other cities to honor Belaid and to protest against the Islamist-led government the day before, shouting slogans that included "We want a new revolution".

Belaid's killing by an unidentified gunman on Wednesday, Tunisia's first such political assassination in decades, has shaken a nation still seeking stability after the overthrow of veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

The family of the slain politician has accused Ennahda of responsibility for his killing. The party denies any hand in it.

"We are here to support legitimacy, but if you prefer the power of the street, look at the streets today, we have this power," Lotfi Zitoun, an Ennahda leader, said in a speech to the Islamist demonstrators in Tunis.

Tunisia's political transition has been more peaceful than those in other Arab nations such as Egypt, Libya and Syria, but tensions are running high between Islamists elected to power and liberals who fear the loss of hard-won liberties.

FREEDOMS THREATENED

"We have gained things - the freedom of expression, the freedom to meet, to form organizations, parties, to work in the open," said Radhi Nasraoui, a veteran human rights campaigner.

"The problem is that these freedoms are still threatened, and there are attempts (by Islamists) to touch the gains of women," she told Reuters.

After Belaid's death, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali promised to form a non-partisan, technocratic cabinet to run the country until an election could take place, despite complaints from within his own Ennahda party and its two junior non-Islamist coalition partners that he had failed to consult them.

Jebali told France 24 television on Saturday that he would resign if political parties refused to support his proposal, which he said was intended to "save the country from chaos".

The state news agency TAP said the prime minister would unveil his new government next week.

Secular groups have accused the Islamist-led government of a lax response to attacks by ultra-orthodox Salafi Islamists on cinemas, theatres, bars and individuals in recent months.

Prolonged political uncertainty and street unrest could damage an economy that relies on tourism. Unemployment and other economic grievances fuelled the revolt against Ben Ali in 2011.

Tunisia's stock exchange has fallen 3.32 percent since Belaid's assassination.

France, the former colonial power, ordered its schools in Tunis to stay closed on Friday and Saturday, warning its nationals to stay clear of potential flashpoints in the capital.

Some of the Islamist demonstrators shouted "France, out", in response to remarks by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls which were rejected by Jebali, the prime minister, on Friday.

"We must support all those who fight to maintain values and remain aware of the dangers of despotism, of Islamism that threatened those values today through obscurantism," Valls had said on Europe 1 radio on Thursday in comments on Tunisia.

"There is an Islamic fascism which is on the rise in many places."

Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem described Valls's remarks as "worrying and unfriendly".

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