Thousands of protestors -- both for and against the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party -- crowded outside the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA) Sunday night for a sit-in, after the second assassination this year of an opposition political leader provoked a public outcry across the nation.
Eyewitnesses told Al Jazeera America that police cordoned off separate spaces for what Tunisian political blog Nawaat.org estimated were 8,000 anti-government protestors and 4,000 supporters of the ruling party. (Nawaat was instrumental in organizing the 2011 Tunisian anti-government protests.)
Present at the demonstrations was the family of Popular Front party leader Mohamed Brahmi, a pan-Arabist, who was gunned down by unidentified assailants Thursday, as well as the family of Chokri Belaid, the leader of the leftist Democratic Patriots movement gunned down on Feb. 6.
Tunisian authorities blamed al Qaeda-linked insurgent group Ansar al Sharia for the attack that killed Brahmi. The group has denied the allegations.
Belaid’s widow, Bessma Khalfaoui, called for an iftar -- the traditional Ramadan break-fast – to be served on site, Nawaat reported.
Many among Ennahda’s opponents have directly blamed the Islamist party for not adequately cracking down on the radical Muslim groups believed to be behind the assassinations -- even as crackdowns on religious groups were a defining feature of the administration of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose ouster in January 2011 launched the so-called Arab Spring.
For the opposition, the protest late Sunday was not “about religion in the state, it’s more profound than that,” said professor of constitutional law and Nawaat co-founder Riadh Guerfali on the phone, as he left the site of the protest.
Guerfali says he saw a married couple arrive at the protest and split up -- what appeared to be the wife, who was veiled, joining Ennahda’s opponents and the husband joining supporters.
Opponents “want set dates for elections,” Guerfali said.
“Not fixing dates was a huge strategic error: Ennahda should have fixed the date for new elections in the day, week or month after they were elected. People don’t have any confidence in their government anymore,” he added.
Ennahda officials have said they aim to adopt a new Tunisian constitution in the next few months and hold elections by the end of the year.
Yusra Ghannouchi, Ennahda spokeswoman and daughter of Ennahda Party founder Rachid Ghannouchi acknowledged that “some” elements in outside the NCA with the intention of “toppling the government and the constituent assembly” in an email to Al Jazeera America.
Ennahda supporters “are protesting against the exploitation of a tragic crime to seek to achieve what the criminals who perpetrated this heinous crime wished to bring about: the disruption of Tunisia's democratic transition and its stability,” Ghannouchi said.
In the weeks since the military ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the detention of several high-level members of Egypt’s own Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda officials have begun to echo the Brotherhood’s call to uphold “electoral legitimacy,” despite a fractious political climate.
In a public address the night before his overthrow, Morsi used the word “legitimacy” nearly 200 times, provoking numerous sarcastic comments across Arabic-language social media.
Ennahda supporters have also signaled that Ben Ali supporters may be trying to provoke unrest as a means of empowering the old regime. Opponents say this accusation is part of an attempt to demonize Ennahda’s political adversaries as propping up a bygone dictatorship.
Opposition leaders said earlier Sunday that they aimed to establish a “salvation government” to challenge the Ennahda-led Islamist party coalition.
Some 65 members of the NCA have temporarily withdrawn from the nation’s interim legislative body earlier in the day, reportedly joining in a civil society outcry against Ennahda, according to reports from local media.
Police fired teargas as protests between opposing groups turned violent earlier Sunday, but the competing demonstrations that night were reportedly peaceful.
Both Ennahda’s opponents and the Islamist Party itself have decried the attack that killed Brahmi Thursday.
Guerfali echoed a call used by other Tunisian political commentators, referencing a line from the Tunisian national anthem: Namoutou, namoutou wyahya alwatan -- Let us die, let us die, that the nation shall survive.
“With the democracy in places like the U.S., assassinations happen. They happen in a place where people are allowed to move freely,” Guerfali said, explaining that political assassinations in the daylight did not happen under the administration of strongman Ben Ali, where people's actions were more tightly restricted by an infamous apparatus of informants hired to report on their neighbors.
“There’s nothing else we can do. Liberty has a price.”