TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Several thousand supporters of Tunisia's ruling moderate Islamist party rallied in the capital in a pro-government demonstration Saturday, a day after the funeral of an assassinated opposition politician. Protesters hurled insults at France, accusing the former colonial ruler of interfering in the North African country's politics.
The ruling Ennahda party had called for a show of support for the constitutional assembly, whose work on a new constitution suffered a severe setback after the killing of Chokri Belaid on Feb. 6 — when leftist parties withdrew their participation. It said the demonstration would also protest "French interference" after comments earlier in the week by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who denounced Belaid's killing as an attack on "the values of Tunisia's Jasmine revolution."
Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, kicking off the Arab Spring revolutions. In the two years since, Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, won elections and has governed in a coalition with two secular parties.
Protesters denounced Valls' remarks, claiming they showed that France is interfering in Tunisia's internal affairs. Demonstrators gathered in front of the National Theater on Tunis' main boulevard, waving flags of the Ennahda party and shouting "Get out, France."
The thoroughfare was bustling, with cafes full and shops reopened after a general strike the previous day. Police in riot armor and plainclothes officers patrolled Saturday, but gone were the tear gas and running street battles.
Friday's funeral for Belaid drew hundreds of thousands of mourners chanting anti-government slogans into the capital's heavily policed streets.
Valls had said on Europe 1 radio on Thursday that Belaid was "one of the democrats and we must support these democrats so that the values of the Jasmine Revolution are not betrayed. There is an Islamic fascism rising everywhere, but this obscurantism must, of course, be condemned because it denies the democracy for which the Libyan, Tunisian and Egyptian people have fought."
Valls was clearly pointing the finger at Salafists, with their strict interpretation of Islam, who have come to the fore, and smeared Ennahda's moderate image. At least one black Salafi flag was spotted in the sea of white Ennahda flags at the demonstration, which took place several hundred meters from the well-guarded French Embassy.
Fathi Rhayem, a teacher, said the demonstration "shows the Tunisian people's desire to show that it is sovereign, it is independent and is no longer under French protection."
"We want to show that we want to live on equal terms with France, as friends with reciprocal interests but not like a dominant and a dominated. The policy of submission ... is finished now," Rhayem said, reflecting the mindset of the new Tunisia just over two years after it overthrew its autocratic ruler.
The events have added to the growing turmoil in Tunisia, where the transition from dictatorship to democracy has been shaken by religious divides, political wrangling and economic struggles. It's been a perilous stretch for a country many hoped would be a model for other post-revolutionary Arab states.
Belaid, who in his car outside his home, was shot dead while by an unknown assailant. Hours after his killing Wednesday, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said he would form a new, technocratic government to guide the country to elections — but Ennahda, his own party, rejected that idea soon afterward.
Late Friday, Jebali renewed his proposal for a new government, which would be a key concession to the country's opposition. "I am convinced this is the best solution for the current situation in Tunisia," Jebali said, offering to resign if the elected assembly did not accept his proposed Cabinet.
Although Jebali said he was confident he could get Ennahda's support, his party's earlier rejection of the proposal exposed its own divisions between moderates and hardliners, and it remained unclear how the prime minister planned to pull enough support to his side.
But the coalition's failure to stem the country's economic crisis and stop the often-violent rise of hardline Salafi Muslims have drawn fierce criticism, especially from staunch secularists such as Belaid. He had also accused Ennahda of backing some of the political violence through its own goon squads.