After Another High-Profile Assassination, Tunisia Lurches Toward Crisis

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Tunisian medics carry the body of slain opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi, as protesters gather at the hospital in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 25, 2013.

Is Tunisia headed for Egypt-type turmoil? The prospect that the small North African country which ignited the entire Arab Spring movement could spiral into violence seemed more plausible on Thursday, after gunmen killed an opposition politician outside his home in the capital Tunis. The attack, which appeared to be the work of several gunmen, was almost identical to the assassination of a beloved secular politician nearly six months ago—suggesting that this time around, quelling public anger against the government could prove more difficult.

Mohamed Brahmi, a 58-year-old member of parliament and a fierce critic of the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party, was shot outside his house on Thursday morning, by what local reports said was about 11 bullets. His distraught colleague Mohsen Nabti told a Tunisian radio station: “He was riddled with bullets in front of his wife and children.” Stunned at the news, Tunisians poured into the capital’s main tree-lined street, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, where giant protests drove out Tunisia’s dictator in January 2011, to some degree inspiring the Egyptian revolution that began days later. In Brahmi’s small hometown of Sidi Bouzid—the same town where the Tunisian Revolution first sparked to life in December 2010—residents burned tires to block roads, according to Reuters. The country’s largest trade union, UGTT, called for a general strike in protest of Brahmi’s death on Friday, which, unlike other parts of the Muslim world, is a work day for many in Tunisia.

For many Tunisians, there is still raw anger and shock over the death on February 6 of Chokri Belaid, a hugely popular politician who had earned both wide support and lethal enemies through his fiery ripostes against the Islamist government, and his dire warnings about rising Islamist militancy.

The Islamist government has long feared that Islamic militants could be working to destroy its new democracy. But secular critics, like Belaid and Brahmi, who represent a collection of liberal parties, have blamed the ruling Ennahda party for cozying up to Salafists and other hardliners, in an effort to broaden its base and squeeze out liberal Tunisians. The Salafists have rapidly risen in strength, and were able to storm and ransack the U.S. Embassy in Tunis last September, breaching the compound wall long before security forces intervened. In twin interviews with TIME after that attack, President Moncef Marzouki, whose party is a junior partner in the Ennahda-led coalition, accused the Islamist party of wanting “to be on good terms with the Salafists.” In a separate interview, Ennahda’s chief Rachid Ghannouchi responded, “We don’t judge people based on what ideology they follow, but on their actions.”

After the two high-profile assassinations of Belaid and Brahmi, those actions are under even more scrutiny—although as yet, there have been no indictments for the murders.

Brahmi was a member of the National Constituent Assembly, which is deep in a contentious political battle over a new post-dictatorship Tunisian constitution. The maw of the argument is over what kind of Tunisia will emerge from the revolution: One that welcomes Western tourists who drink alcohol and wear bikinis, or one that is  guided by far more stringent Islamic laws.

Perhaps fearing that street protests could spread, Ennahda quickly issued a statement after Brahmi’s death on Thursday, saying that it felt “immense sadness and shock,” and demanding that the Interior Ministry “urgently arrest those who committed this crime.”

Judging by the pursuit of Belaid’s killers since his assassination last February, the chances of quick arrests do not look good, however.

Last April, officials appealed for help in tracking five suspects in Belaid’s murder, but the appeal led to no arrests. And it was not until Wednesday that Noureddin B’Hiri, senior adviser to the prime minister, announced that the government had “identified the sponsors and the authors” of Belaid’s February murder, and said the Interior Ministry would soon name them.

But less than one day later, Belaid’s colleague Brahmi lay dead in a Tunis suburb, another victim of Tunisia’s increasingly violent politics.