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Chaos Follows Funeral For Slain Leader In Tunisia


We want to go live now to the nation of Tunisia, where tens of thousands of people turned out today for the funeral of an assassinated opposition leader. Political tensions turned violent as young men clashed with police. The scene was a reminder of the precariousness of the situation in Tunisia - two years after the Arab Spring revolution began there. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was at the funeral and joins me on the line. And Eleanor, what was the scene at this funeral? What did you see?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, David, emotions are extremely high here in Tunisia. People were pouring - I arrived this morning and people were already pouring into the streets and along the highways, heading towards this central cemetery in Tunis. Thousands - I would say tens of thousands of people. The cemetery's up on a hill and you could look down on the streets and it was just black with people. They were on bridges and all along the roads. And then the funeral procession came from this - the assassinated political leader's neighborhood. And there was thousands of more people. Tunisians were wrapped in the red flag. They were carrying pictures of him, Chokri Belaid. People were singing the national anthem. I haven't heard that since the revolution. This felt like the revolution.

People were crying, and people were angry. They were chanting - they were chanting Hanushi(ph) assassin. Hanushi(ph) assassin.

GREENE: And remind us why they were saying that. Who is Hanushi(ph)?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Hanushi is head of the so-called moderate Islamists, who pretty much rule this country. There's a coalition with secularists, but the Islamists have the most in the government. People here say that they are not reigning in the extremists. The Islamists say they want a democracy, but there's these extremist Islamists who are called Salafis. In the last - I've been coming here since the revolution, and every time I come there's more cases of them closing bars that sell alcohol, telling hotels they can't sell alcohol, busting up art shows, threatening artists, telling women they have to cover up.

So they're trying to - people say that the government is not cracking down on these extremists and it's all come to this, because what has it ended up in? A secular leader has been shot in the head four times. So people here are angry. They say nothing's changed with the economy. The situation here is still insecure. But this party is letting people - these thugs do these acts, and they're trying to Islamicize the society.

GREENE: Well, Eleanor Beardsley, let's sort out of the tension a bit more, if we can. People on the streets blaming this moderate Islamist part, calling them assassins, essentially, even though the party has absolutely denied that. The person, Chokri Belaid, tell us more about him. He's secular, and it sounds like he's very popular in the country.

BEARDSLEY: He is. And I found that out today. People were not only here from Tunis, they come from all over the country. Because this man has a past. He was a - he's a lawyer. He's famous. And he was very well-known in the days of the dictator, Ben Ali. He represented the persecuted, the poor. He even fought for the rights of the Islamists who were jailed at that time. So people are very emotionally attached to this man. I saw many people crying, and they came and they said we've come to bury him. He was very much a beloved figure here.

GREENE: How bad are the clashes on the streets that we're hearing about, Eleanor? I mean did people come out to this funeral ready to go at it with each other, or did this kind of happen suddenly?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah. No, it was on the periphery, David. I mean most of the people were very peaceful and they were - there were men, women, old, young, children. I mean everybody was there. Thousands of people going into the cemetery. But on the periphery there was - there were cars set on fire, black smoke billowing over the cemetery. And the police were firing volleys of tear gas, which kept coming into the cemetery. Everyone had a scarf over their face, because it was just searing tear gas.

So - and also there were young men throwing rocks. And so there was - this is all just signs of this insecurity that is in this country right now, and so you had this very emotional funeral and on the periphery all of this crazy violence going on.

GREENE: And Eleanor, you mentioned you covered part of the Arab Spring revolutions. Tunisia was - you know, it's where it began. It was in many ways supposed to be the poster child for peaceful revolution. You have a government here that had both secular and Islamist elements. I mean the point was that everyone was going to be able to get along. How frustrated are people there that this seems to be unraveling, at least for the moment?

BEARDSLEY: People are extremely frustrated, because this is a country that has a long secular tradition. So people here say they're open - you know, they have tourists, they're educated. Yes, they're Muslim, but they have their Muslim religion, it's tolerant. And there's this party now governing the country that they say wants to make the society Islamic, and people here don't want that. And so they're frustrated. And many people told me we need a second revolution, because this government is no better than the dictator.

GREENE: Alright, we'll be following these events in Tunis as the day goes on. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joining us live on the line from Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Eleanor, thanks and be safe, okay?

BEARDSLEY: Thank you. Good to talk to you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.