Universities strike over political assassination

Academics and students at Tunisia's universities held a two-day strike last week in response to the murder of an outspoken opposition leader. In response, the government closed universities until Monday 11 February.

The general strike against the political assassination of Chokri Belaid is believed to be the biggest since 14 January 2011 – the day former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, touching off the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

The universities strike was part of a countrywide general strike called by the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) to coincide with the funeral of Belaid, who was killed outside his home on 6 February.

Higher education unions decided to hold a two-day strike and, for example, classes at 12 institutes of the University of Manouba near Tunis were cancelled on 7 February.

Tahar Mannai, vice-dean of the faculty of arts and humanities, told Tunisia Live that higher education union members “would meet to determine the next steps”.

Habib Kazdaghli, a dean at Manouba University, explained to AFP-TV why educationists and academics had joined the strike: "It is a real turning point in the history of Tunisia.

"This is the first programmed political assassination held since independence, and this is an act that has more than one dimension. It is an act that summarises a little bit the state of security in the country in general.”

The UGTT issued a statement on 9 February “calling all university staff to allocate time in each lesson to raise the issue of political assassination and democratic transition as well as mobilising all powers to liquidate the seeds of sedition and…physical violence”.

Chokri Belaid (48), general secretary of the Democratic Patriotic Party and a government critic, was shot and killed outside his home in Tunis. His killing came at a time of rising violence in Tunisia, stoked by political and social discontent.

It spawned protests in Tunis and other cities including Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of Tunisia's revolution and ensuing Arab Spring uprisings.

Police were deployed in numbers in the capital’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the 2011 uprising that toppled ex-dictator Ben Ali, where thousands had gathered in scenes reminiscent of the revolution.

There has been growing tension in Tunisia between the Islamist ruling party and secular Tunisians, who accuse the government of allowing radical Salafi Islamists to have more say in public policy.

Tunisian media voiced fears that the murder of Belaid, a prestigious leftist opposition figure and outspoken critic of the ruling Islamists Ennahda party, could plunge the country into a new cycle of violence, because militias close to Ennahda have, in particular, been accused of organising attacks on the secular opposition and trade unions.

However, Ennahda officials denied any involvement in the killing.