Thousands Of Tunisians Turn Out For Funeral Of Assassinated Opposition Leader

Tens of thousands of Tunisians gathered for the funeral of Chokri Belaid on Friday. The secular political leader was murdered by unknown assailants on Wednesday. His killing set off riots and clashes between protesters and the police in several parts of the country.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. In Tunisia today, huge crowds poured into the streets of the capital, Tunis. They gathered to mourn a beloved politician who was assassinated outside his home earlier this week. Forty-eight-year-old Chokri Belaid was a secular politician who had been sharply critical of the Islamists in Tunisia's government. His death has plunged the country into a serious political crisis just two years after ousting its dictator.

Eleanor Beardsley was at today's funeral and sent this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thousands of people lined the streets and thousands more marched in Chokri Belaid's funeral procession as it slowly wound its way to Tunis' el Jallez cemetery. Many people were wrapped in Tunisian flags. Others held photos of the slain leader. There were tears and anger as Tunisian's chanted...

(Foreign language spoken)

Rachid Ghannouchi is head of the Islamist Renaissance Party, the major force in Tunisia's governing coalition.

People here say the moderate Islamist government has led extremists, known as Salafis, get away with intimidating artists, intellectuals and women over the past year and a half. Roving bands of Salafis have also burned down restaurants, bars and shops selling alcohol around the country. Most people out on the streets today suspect that Salafis killed Belaid, who was an outspoken defender of Tunisia's secular ideals.

Ines Beji and her friends say the Islamist-led government is in cahoots with the extremists.

INES BEJI: They did many things and the actual government say let them, they are our children. So we are today with a catastrophe. We don't want this government, this Salafist one.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And we say out Ghannouchi. Go out.

BEARDSLEY: Wednesday's assassination has shaken Tunisians to their core. To diffuse tensions, the prime minister called for the government to be dissolved and replaced by a nonpartisan cabinet of technocrats until the next election. The governing Renaissance Party has rejected that idea, but the prime minister, himself a member of the Islamist party, is standing by his plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING AND CLAPPING)

BEARDSLEY: As the funeral march continued, the crowds sang the country's national anthem just as they did during the revolution two years ago. Many here, such as 55-year-old Mourad Khelifa, say Tunisia needs a second revolution to get rid of the Islamist government.

MOURAD KHELIFA: (Through Translator) In fact, we lost the revolution with this government. It is worthless on every front: economic, social and security.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

BEARDSLEY: As the throng of mourners makes its way into the cemetery, groups of young men start a street battle with police. We're in the cemetery. They're firing tear gas. I don't know who and why, but people are just streaming out of the cemetery. Nobody can see. I can't see myself. I wasn't expecting this.

As the flag-draped coffin of Chokri Belaid is carried through the cemetery gates, the crowd yells, God is great, and women ululate. Tunisians here say they are mourning a great man, a human rights lawyer who steadfastly defended Islamists jailed under the regime of the former dictator. Belaid's killing, they say, marks a turning point in Tunisia's road to democracy. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis.

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