TUNIS, Tunisia – Thousands of protesters chanting anti-government slogans joined a funeral march to lay to rest an assassinated Tunisian opposition politician on Saturday, a display of the anger threatening the survival of a government once seen as a model in the region for the transition to democracy.
Adding to the tension, a bomb exploded in the early morning underneath a car at the port in Tunis outside a police station. Though there were no injuries, the rare attack helped deepen the sense of unease in this North African country, where two opposition politicians have been shot dead in the last six months, apparently with the same gun.
Mohammed Brahmi’s coffin was carried by soldiers to Jellaz cemetery and buried next to Chokri Belaid, a fellow politician who was killed in February. Brahmi’s widow and five children accompanied the coffin on its route through the capital.
“Down with the party of the Brotherhood,” chanted mourners, referring to the ruling Ennahda Party’s affiliation with the regional Muslim Brotherhood religious group. “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
The latest assassination Thursday has exacerbated the distrust between the ruling coalition led by moderate Islamists and the opposition, which has demanded the dissolution of the government because of its failures to rein in Islamic extremists, turn around the economy and manage the transition to democracy.
Speaking next to the grave, activist lawyer Nacer Laouini called on army chief of staff Gen. Mohamed Salah Hamdi to protect the people from the Islamists – a clear reference to the recent events in Egypt, where the military ousted the elected Islamist president.
“The head of the army is here. We ask the army to be on the side of the people as it always has been and protect Tunisians against Ennahda,” he said.
Tunisia’s army, however, has shown little inclination to involve itself in politics up until now, unlike its Egyptian counterpart.
The crowd sang the national anthem several times and with much emotion. But their numbers were nowhere near the hundreds of thousands that came out for Belaid’s funeral in February.
Temperatures in Tunis at midday were a blazing 35 degrees (95F), and the funeral took place during the fasting month of Ramadan, when most Tunisians don’t eat or drink during daylight hours.
Following the funeral, hundreds demonstrated in front of the constituent assembly, calling for its dissolution and were met by volleys of tear gas by police who chased demonstrators through the streets.
Opposition politician Mongi Rahoui was also beaten by police, according to local news media.
Brahmi’s assassination has spawned protests and further hardened opposition sentiments holding the moderate Islamists elected in 2011 responsible for the lack of security in the country.
Late Friday, a 48-year-old political activist with the same leftist coalition as the assassinated Brahmi died after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister during a demonstration outside a police station in the southern mining town of Gafsa.
The head of the assembly, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, called for calm and urged the 54 members of the elected body who have withdrawn in protest to reconsider their decision so that the work on writing a new constitution could be finished by the end of August.
“It is impossible to dissolve the assembly now and let all our efforts of the last two years go up in smoke,” he said Saturday evening.
The Interior Ministry, citing physical evidence and witnesses, said Friday that Brahmi’s assassin was Boubakr Hakim, a known militant and weapons smuggler who was part of the same al-Qaida linked cell alleged to have murdered Belaid back in February.
Hakim is alleged to have shot Brahmi 14 times outside his home Thursday in full view of his family with the same 9 mm semi-automatic handgun used to kill Belaid. He then sped away on the back of a moped.
The Saturday morning bomb blast caused no injuries and only blew out windows in the area but it represents a dangerous escalation for a country that has yet to experience serious terrorist incidents like its neighbors Algeria and Libya.
“As we were leaving the station for a routine patrol, we saw a suspicious package under the car,” police officer Mourad Mliki told The Associated Press. “We went back to the station to tell our superiors and there was a huge explosion – it was set off remotely.”
Mohammed Ali Aroui, the police spokesman, told the state news agency that the remains of the explosive device were being examined by a special team.
“The explosion was so strong it was like an earthquake,” said Walid Khammar, a fish seller living near the police station whose car was damaged by the blast.
Tunisians overthrew a longtime secular dictator in January 2011, inspiring the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring across the region. The long-repressed Ennahda party dominated subsequent elections and now rules in coalition with two secular parties.
With two political assassinations and a faltering economy, the opposition says the leadership has lost its legitimacy and is demanding a new government.
The opposition accuses Ennahda of turning a blind eye to the rise of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis, many of whom are willing to use violence to push their views.
The government had said it did not want to replicate the repressive anti-Islamist policies of overthrown dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but when thousands of Salafis attacked the U.S. Embassy in September over an anti-Islamic film produced in the U.S., the government cracked down on the movement.
In April, soldiers patrolling in a mountainous region near Algeria tripped a roadside bomb causing severe injuries and sparking a search of the region that revealed the remains of training camps and more hidden explosives.
Schemm reported from Rabat.