TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Shaken by the assassination of a prominent leftist opposition leader that unleashed major protests, Tunisia's prime minister announced Wednesday that he would form a new government of technocrats to guide the country to elections "as soon as possible."
The decision by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali was a clear concession to the opposition, which has long demanded a reshuffle of the Islamist-dominated government. It also came hours after the first assassination of a political leader in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
The killing of 48-year-old Chokri Belaid, a secularist and fierce critic of Ennahda, the moderate ruling Islamist party, marked an escalation in the country's political violence and sparked allegations of government negligence — even outright complicity. It also bolstered fears that Tunisia's transition to democracy will be far more chaotic than originally hoped.
"This is a sad day that shook the country regardless of our differences," Jebali said in an address to the nation, whose capital city still smelled of the tear gas lobbed at protesters angry over the killing. "We are at a crossroads, and we will learn from it to make a peaceful Tunisia, secure and pluralist, where we may differ but not kill each other."
The ruling coalition, led by Jebali's Ennahda party, had been in stalled negotiations with opposition parties to expand the coalition and redistribute ministerial portfolios in an effort to calm the country's fractious politics. Elections had been expected for the summer, but an exact date depended on lawmakers finishing work on a new constitution.
Jebali said the new ministers in the technocratic government "would not belong to any party and its task would be limited to organizing elections as soon as possible with a neutral administration." The statement implied that Jebali would be leading the new government and that its selection was imminent.
Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, kicking off a wave of pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa that have met with varying degrees of success.
With its relatively small, well-educated population of 10 million, Tunisia has been widely expected to have the best chance of successfully transitioning to democracy. Its first post-dictatorship election brought to power the moderate Islamists of Ennahda in a coalition with two secular parties.
With the fall of the country's secular dictatorship, however, hardline Islamist groups also have flourished and there have been a string of attacks by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis against arts, culture and people they deemed to be impious.
In the last few months, there also have appeared the Leagues to Protect the Revolution, groups that say they are fighting corruption and seeking out remnants of the Ben Ali regime.
But opposition leaders such as Belaid said the leagues have become Ennahda-backed goon squads that attacked opposition rallies. Last weekend saw a string of attacks against such meetings, including a rally held by Belaid's Popular Front in northern Tunisia.
Belaid, a lawyer, was shot four times point blank as he left his house in Tunis on Wednesday morning. He was taken to a nearby clinic where he died. His wife told French Radio RTL he was shot twice in the head, once in the neck and once in the heart.
"He died for the country. He died for democracy," Basma Belaid said. "He was threatened all the time," she added, holding Ennahda directly responsible for his death.
Belaid's funeral is scheduled for Friday and the family has said members of the ruling coalition will not be welcome.
As word of the assassination spread, demonstrators converged on the Interior Ministry in the center of the capital chanting anti-government slogans.
The scenes were reminiscent of the final days of Ben Ali as protesters surged down the tree-lined Bourguiba Avenue shouting "the people want the fall of the regime" and were met with volleys of tear gas and riot police.
At one point, the ambulance containing Belaid's body, surrounded by angry mourners, headed toward the ministry before it was driven off by tear gas.
By late afternoon, the center of the city was largely deserted and littered with stones, guarded by police armored vehicles and patrolled by a tank from the national guard. Knots of riot police chased protesters through the elegant downtown streets.
At least one policeman died in the clashes, the Interior Ministry said.
Protests flared across the rest of the country as well, with fierce clashes in the southern town of Gafsa and the coastal cities of Sousse and Monastir. Ennahda offices were also attacked in several towns, according to media reports.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a member of a secular party in the governing coalition, called the Belaid assassination a threat against all Tunisians in a speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg before he rushed home, canceling a trip to Cairo.
"All these destabilization attempts — and there will be others because for some the Tunisian model should not succeed — I can tell you that we will face the challenge and defeat it," he told journalists.
The assassination also comes as Tunisia is struggling to revive its economy. On Monday, the central bank head, Chedli Ayari, said that while the country was on the road to recovery, the political squabbling had to be resolved to reassure foreign and Tunisian investors.
"This assassination is the gravest incident yet in a climate of mounting violence," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Since Tunisia's revolution, there have been violent assaults against journalists, political activists, artists, and simple citizens, many of which the authorities did not investigate, let alone prosecute."
Several opposition parties suspended their participation in the constitutional assembly over the assassination and are now calling for a general strike, which could further inflame tensions. By Wednesday evening, however, they had yet to react to Jebali's announcement of a caretaker government.
Nejib Chebbi of the centrist Jomhouri Party warned prior to Jebali's announcement that other political figures could be targeted for assassination, and he called for the dissolution of the Leagues to Protect the Revolution.
The night before his death, Belaid had called for the dissolution of those leagues as well.
"There are groups inside Ennahda inciting violence," Belaid told the Nessma TV channel. He alleged that Ennahda leader "Rachid Ghannouchi considers the leagues to be the conscience of the nation, so the defense of the authors of violence is clear. All those who oppose Ennahda become the targets of violence."
Ennahda, however, has denied supporting any violence and promised an investigation into the assassination. Ghannouchi called Belaid's killing an "ignoble crime" and offered his condolences to his family.
As international condemnation of the assassination swiftly poured in, several countries expressed worry over the violence in Tunisia.
"There is no justification for an outrageous and cowardly act of violence like this," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. "There's no place in the new Tunisia for violence. We urge the government of Tunisia to conduct a fair, transparent and professional investigation to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice, consistent with Tunisian and international law."
French President Francois Hollande also expressed worry. "This murder deprives Tunisia of one of its most courageous and free voices," he said in a statement.
Schemm reported from Rabat. Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Strasbourg, Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.