Tunisian Salafists
Tunisian SalafistsAFP/File

Tens of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets this weekend calling for the Islamist-led government to step down. Protesters chanted slogans opposing the leading Ennahda party and waved Tunisian flags.

The protest came at the end of the traditional Muslim 40-day mourning period for MP Mohammed Brahmi, an secular opposition leader who was assassinated in July. Brahmi’s death sparked violent protests in July in which one person was killed.

Brahmi’s widow was among those calling for the government to go.

Ennahda has declined previous calls to step down, but has suggested broadening its coalition and holding elections in December. The party has called to maintain the current government until the National Constituent Assembly finishes creating a new Tunisian constitution.

The so-called “Arab Spring” – a wave of ousters of authoritarian Arab rulers – began in Tunisia, where protesters forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of office in January 2011, in what was to become known as the "Jasmine Revolution." The Tunisian protesters’ success sparked similar protests in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

In some countries, the “spring” of pro-democracy protests was followed by upheaval and bloodshed; Egypt’s elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted from power by the Egyptian military and now awaits trial, while in Syria, protests against President Bashar Assad’s regime developed into a bloody civil war that has killed as many as 100,000 people.

In comparison, Tunisia’s transition to democracy has been relatively smooth.

However, assassination in early 2013 of a secular opposition leader from the same party as Brahmi, Chokri Belaid, exacerbated tensions between Islamist and secularist parties. 

Belaid was killed by a gunman outside his Tunis home on February 6. That killing enflamed simmering tensions between liberals and Islamists in the once proudly secular Muslim nation, with Belaid's family accusing Ennahda of his assassination, a charge the Islamists strongly denied.

Brahimi, 58, a prominent member of the Arab nationalist Popular Front party, was shot by two men on a moped in July. That murder, as well, resulted in protests.

Tunisian secularists are concerned by the growth of political Islam in their country, and in particular with the extremist Salafi movement that has been linked to political violence.