Tunisians of all political stripes are in shock after the killing of Shokri Belaid, leader of the Democratic Patriots
Of all the political turmoil the country has experienced since the 2010-11 uprising, the slaying of the leftist politician - a well-known opposition figure and vocal critic of the ruling coalition - marks a new low.
The resulting crisis has led to the collapse of the government, and could potentially doom the election that was set to take place later this year.
Many say the killing is unsurprising, and that the Islamist-led government bears a heavy responsibility for tolerating and fuelling a deep partisan divide and a culture of political violence.
A star of the Popular Front, a leftist political alliance of which his party is a member, Belaid had many supporters among those who accused the current government of failing to deliver on social justice and economic development.
He was a figurehead of the protests in Siliana last November, when tensions over unemployment and stalling economic progress erupted. Ali Laarayedh, Tunisia's interior minister, accused Belaid of inciting the protesters against the police. Belaid in turn said the interior ministry was guilty of tyranny.
Belaid, a lawyer and activist, had also been at the forefront of the early lawyer's protests in December 2010, which grew to become the uprising that toppled the Tunisian government in January 2011. The Ennahdha movement and most of the country's opposition parties did not give the uprising their explicit backing until the last days.
Wednesday’s shooting is the second suspected killing of an opposition politician since the uprising, and one of many violent attacks.
Anger in Tunisia over slain opposition figure
In October, Lotfi Naqdh - a regional leader of the secularist conservative Nida Tounes Party - was beaten to death in the southern town of Tatouine. His death followed an outbreak of violence between his party and government supporters, the first big flare-up of interparty violence.
The government claimed he died of a heart attack, but an autopsy last week confirmed that Naqdh had died as a result of lynching at the hands of government supporters. Said Chebli, the head of the Tatouine branch of Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution is one of the people implicated in Naqdh’s killing.
Ali Fares, a MP of the ruling Ennahdha party, called on Thursday for Chebli and other suspects in the mob lynching to be released. “These people came out into the streets for the noble cause of defending the revolution, and instead of paying them homage, they have been incarcerated,” Fares declared.
Many opposition parties, human rights groups and activists have called for the dissolution of the leagues, which some compare to militia groups. Belaid was among these critics, arguing that the groups were reinforcing a deep partisan divide and trying to assert ownership over what the revolution meant.
For its part, Ennahdha argues they are a counterforce against its secular opponents, particularly the UGTT, the mighty national union. Members of the league were accused of attacking the UGTT headquarters last December.
The media, viewed by many government supporters as being anti-Islamist, have also been targeted. At a protest against the country’s media in Sousse in December, for instance, demonstrators reportedly chanted the slogan “News, we want your skin!”
Exactly who is responsible for the assassination is unclear, and members of Ennahdha have also been targeted by political violence. Abdelfattah Mourou, the party’s co-founder and an advocate of a progressive form of political Islam, was reportedly assaulted by a group of Salafists a week ago.
The UK-based rights group Amnesty International has called for an independent investigation into Belaid's death, and for the authorities to take a more proactive stance against political violence.
“Today's shocking killing must serve as a wake-up call to the authorities. It is their duty to protect all individuals, including those who criticise the government or Tunisia’s leading Ennahdha party, from violence. No group, regardless of its affiliation, can be above the law,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International, said in a press statement.
Said Aidi, a member of the executive committee of the Republican Party and a former minister, said that opposition parties had been calling on the interior ministry for months to put an end to inflammatory partisan language against opposition figures.
Aidi, a conservative secularist, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview that the government was “totally responsible” for Belaid’s death because of what he described as its indifference to the intimidation of opposition activists and politicians.
“There have been incitations to murder made in the mosques against figures including Shokri Belaid,” he said. Aidi says he was himself beaten by groups he believes were linked to Ennahdha, during a peaceful march commemorating the Tunisian union leader and political philosopher Farhat Hached last December 5. He suffered a skull fracture and serious eye injury, and says his aggressors escaped with impunity.
"These are fascist thugs," he told Al Jazeera, adding that in the past few days, many opposition movements have had their meetings disrupted by the groups.
But Ennahdha denies any links to Wednesday’s killing, which it has firmly denounced. “This is a sad day for Tunisia … we’ve never had anything like this in our history,” said Zied Ladhari, an Ennahdha MP. “Even if there are political divergences between us, we can’t accept such acts of violence against those who don’t share our ideas.”
He told Al Jazeera in a phone interview that a serious investigation would be needed to uncover who was behind the killing, and that those behind it were trying to derail Tunisia’s democratic transition.