TUNIS // Two gunmen murdered a Tunisian opposition politician yesterday, prompting fears of further instability in a country where the interim government is already battling growing criticism.
Mohamed Brahmi, 58, a member of the National Constituent Assembly and critic of the ruling coalition led by the Islamist Ennahda party, was killed as he was leaving his house in the northern Ariana suburb of the capital.
A witness said that two men on a motorcycle shot him from close range, according to state media.
He was taken to Mahmoud Al Matri hospital nearby where he was declared dead.
Worries about possible repercussions immediately began to rumble through the capital, where a sleepy, stiflingly hot Ramadan afternoon was suddenly lit up by television and radio stations tuned to rolling news coverage.
Opposition politicians and demonstrators blamed the government for his death. "The people want the fall of the regime," chanted a small crowd outside the hospital. Children with patriotic face-paint and flags looked on, while outside the interior ministry, state media reported another angry demonstration of roughly a thousand people.
The killing bore a strong resemblance to the assassination by alleged Islamist extremists in February of secular leftist Chokri Belaid, which many people blamed on the leading Islamist party Ennahda. On that occasion, mass protests caused the fragile government to wobble and eventually precipitated the fall of the prime minister Hamadi Jebali and a cabinet reshuffle.
Now, as the government appears poised to unveil a delayed constitution and may even begin planning elections, it has come under pressure in recent weeks from groups including the Tamarod movement, inspired by Egyptian groups of the same name that, with military help, felled the Mohammed Morsi's government in Cairo.
Demonstrations criticising Islamist rule and incompetence have become more common since similar protests in Egypt changed the political landscape there. And the swift response yesterday from Ennahda's head, Rashid Ghannouchi, suggested concern within Ennahda that outrage over the attack could spread out of control.
"It is not in the interests of our country to spread baseless accusations which lead to burning of offices and shedding of blood," he said in a radio interview played on several stations, while other Ennahda members condemned the attack and offered condolences.
The president, Moncef Marzouki, told TTN television channel that he believed that the assassination was designed to derail the new constitution, which is near completion more than two years after a popular uprising deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
"We hear inciteful and irrational statements. We hope soon reason and responsibility will prevail," he said.
Brahmi was originally from the town of Sidi Bouzid, where the demonstrations that became regional uprisings began in late 2010. Demonstrations were reported there again late yesterday following the assassination. Among the array of leftist, secular Tunisian movements, Mr Brahmi had served as president of the Popular Front coalition, as well as his own recently-formed movement.
An enthusiastic Ennahda opponent, Brahmi had undergone hunger strikes on a number of occasions because he felt he was being blocked from helping the people of his hometown. He had accused Ennahda of building a parallel security apparatus, using everyone from taxi drivers to vegetable vendors as informants, and said that the party was dismantling the state.
"Everyone says that there is a list, fist Chokri Belaid, now him," said Mohamed Trabelsi, 41, who was demonstrating along with hundreds of others outside the hospital. "It's the same group, it's planned, it's the terrorists who govern the country."
Yesterday was a holiday, a day to celebrate the 56th anniversary of the republic of Tunisia. "We hoped to celebrate it in our homes," said Mr Trabelsi, a metal worker. "And we heard of the death of Mohamed Brahmi with suffering and pain because it was our holiday, we wanted the republic, the democracy, this is not what these people want."
He was demonstrating with a few hundred people who were passionate but listless in the afternoon heat, most of them fasting.
But calls from the largest trade union for a general strike and Tamarod's call for civil disobedience and protests today could be much bigger and represent a challenge to the government.
Speculation of Ennahda involvement in the attack is already prevalent, but this would likely be counterproductive for the Islamist party, analysts suggested.
"It is unlikely that Ennahda leadership are connected with these assassinations, but it is likely that Ennahda supporters or sympathisers are," said William Lawrence of the Maghreb Center in Washington, DC. "However, whoever perpetrated this would be working at cross purposes to what Ennahda is trying to accomplish, so they would likely be radicalised ex-supporters of Ennahda."
"It is a destabilising act," he said, pointing out that it would also strengthen Tunisia's nascent Tamarod movement, which has attempted to emulate its Egyptian namesake and force the ouster of the government.
However, as violence roils Egypt, with huge demonstrations called for today by the head of the army, Tunisians seem to quail at the prospect of following Cairo's path.
One middle-aged woman demonstrating outside the hospital, who declined to give her name, decried the government, saying that it had lost all credibility.
"But it's not at all the same story [as Egypt]," she said. "It's not the same government, the same country - everyone must know that every country has its own story."