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TUNIS, Tunisia – Tens of thousands of Tunisians chanting anti-government slogans converged Friday on a cemetery for the funeral of an assassinated leftist opposition politician, as military helicopters hovered overhead and tensions threatened to boil over into further violence.
The event to mark the death of Chokri Belaid was marred by small clashes between police and groups of stone-throwing young men attempting to steal the cars of mourners outside the cemetery. Clouds of tear of gas floated into Jellaz cemetery itself, sending mourners surging to one side as they waited for the funeral procession to arrive.
Live television images showed at least two cars burning in the streets outside as police faced off against gangs of young men.
Mourners came from all over the country to mourn Belaid, a harsh critic of the Islamist government who was gunned down in front of his house Wednesday, sparking days of rioting by his supporters. The nation was largely shut down due to a general strike called by the labor unions in solidarity, and the national carrier Tunis Air canceled all its flights.
Efforts to stem the country's worst crisis since the 2011 revolution deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have so far failed and the funeral has become a platform to mobilize popular anger. The anti-government sentiment at the cemetery was palpable and there was a brief scuffle when officials identified as being with the governing coalition were stopped by the crowd from entering.
The army, one of the few state institutions still holding people's respect, provided security for the funeral march and could play the role of a stabilizing force in the coming weeks.
Once the standard bearer in the region for its political consensus, the country's transition to democracy has been shaken by a sour economy and political turmoil pitting the country's governing Islamists against secular parties, sometimes violently.
Belaid had accused the ruling Islamist Ennahda party of resorting to thugs to attack opposition rallies. His family and allies accuse the party of complicity. Although they have offered no proof, the allegations have fanned popular dissatisfaction with the government.
"We can't accept that they assassinate freedom, that they assassinate democracy -- that's what they are doing -- we are burying a martyr," said Mohammed Souissi, a 63-year-old veterinarian who showed up at the cemetery, where the crowd seemed unfazed by the intermittent rain and sang the national anthem and chanted "Ghannouchi assassin," a reference Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, .
Near Belaid's parental home where the process was set to begin, opposition politicians, lawyers in black robes and white collars gathered with thousands of other mourners, chanting "stop the violence" and "we are all Chokri Belaid."
More than a dozen headquarters of the Ennahda party were attacked overnight in towns around the country, Tunisian media reported. Schools, shops, banks and other institutions were all shuttered following the general strike.
Tunisia's prime minister offered to replace the government after Belaid's killing in response to long standing opposition demands, but that attempt may have backfired as Ennahda rejected his decision -- exposing divisions within the party itself between moderates and hardliners.
The Ministry of the Interior put out a statement Friday urging calm, but the police force has been a major target of protesters over the past few days. The ministry building itself on Friday morning was ringed by several lawyers of iron barriers and barbed wire extending across the city's signature Bourguiba Avenue, where it has been a focus of protests. The area was also heavily patrolled by armored police vehicles in anticipation of any violence.
Knots of young men were gathered on street corners near the avenue.
Belaid's death came as relations between the government and the opposition had deteriorated. Ennahda was long repressed under the secular rule of Ben Ali, but after his overthrow in January 2011, the well-organized movement won subsequent elections. Overall, Ennahda is considered a moderate grouping. Hardline Islamists known as Salafis have come out against it.
Friday's strike was called by the country's largest labor union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, in a clear expression of their opposition to the Ennahda government. A threat to call a general strike in December was defused by negotiations.
As one of the most organized groups in society and with a left-wing leadership, the UGTT, as it is known, has long been a counterbalance to Ennahda. The last time it called a general strike, in 1978, riots erupted around the country.