Chokri Belaid speaks at a meeting in Tunis, Dec. 29, 2010. / Getty
TUNIS, Tunisia A Tunisian opposition leader critical of the Islamist-led government and violence by radical Muslims was shot to death Wednesday the first political assassination in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
The killing is likely to heighten tensions in the North African nation whose path from dictatorship to democracy so far has been seen as a model for the Arab world.
Chokri Belaid, a leading member of a leftist alliance of parties known as the Popular Front, was shot as he left his house in the capital, Tunis, the state news agency TAP reported. It said he was taken to a nearby medical clinic, where he died.
Belaid, a 48-year-old lawyer, had been a fierce critic of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that dominates the government.
More than 1,000 people quickly gathered in the heart of the capital to protest in front of the Interior Ministry, holding the Islamist-dominated government responsible for the slaying. That is the same site where anti-government protests two years ago eventually toppled Tunisia's long-time dictator.
Ennahda issued a statement calling the slaying a "heinous crime" that targets the country's "security and stability."
"(The party) holds the conspiring parties behind this crime fully responsible and calls on security authorities to make all possible efforts to find the criminals and bring them to justice," the statement said.
The motive behind the killing is unclear. It comes as Tunisia is struggling to maintain stability and revive its economy after its longtime dictator was overthrown in an uprising two years ago. That revolution set off revolts across the Arab world and unleashed new social and religious tensions at home in this Mediterranean nation.
The Islamist-led government is also in negotiations with opposition parties to reshuffle the Cabinet and possibly expand the ruling coalition. Weeks of talks have yielded nothing, however, as the parties seem unable to reach an agreement over redistributing power.
Belaid had been critical of Tunisia's leadership, especially Ennahda, and had accused authorities of not doing enough to stop violence by ultraconservatives who have targeted theaters and art exhibits seen as out of keeping with their strict interpretation of Islam.
According to his family, Belaid regularly received death threats, most recently on Tuesday, but refused to limit his high-profile activities.
Over the weekend, radicals disrupted a rally led by Belaid in northern Tunisia, part of a string of political meetings that were disrupted by gangs.
Belaid had been particularly outspoken against the so-called "Committees to Protect the Revolution," which many accuse of being behind the violence. These groups are believed to be affiliated with the Ennahda Party and say it is their mission to seek out remnants of the old regime.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, who is currently in Strasbourg, France, to address the European Parliament, cancelled his scheduled trip to Cairo for the Organization of the Islamic Conference and will head straight back to Tunisia, according to Shems FM radio.
Over the weekend Marzouki threatened to resign if the country's political impasse was not resolved, creating greater worry over the state of the government as the Tunisian economy struggles to recover.