TUNIS // Thousands of people filled the main avenue of the Tunisian capital yesterday in a demonstration supporting the beleaguered government, the main Islamist party Ennahda and various religious groups who say their reputation for violent extremism is undeserved.
In an attempt by the ruling party to show strength, about 3,000 people gathered despite cold and rain in Habib Bourguiba avenue, the highly symbolic heart of Tunis.
For the government, it was a catastrophic political week in which it was accused of failing to prevent the assassination of the secularist Chokri Belaid and Ennahda's prime minister called for the government's dissolution.
The crowd waved the blue-and-white flag of Ennahda, the red Tunisian flag and the black banners with Islamic slogans favoured by more hardline Islamist groups including Ansar Al Sharia, a prominent Salafi group.
"The people are Muslim and will never give up," they cried, and "The people want Ennahda anew."
The demonstration was organised in response to the vast crowds who attended a funerary rally for Belaid on Friday. Many at the rally called for the ejection of the interim government, led by Ennahda, blaming them for the rise in political violence that has peaked with the assassination of Belaid.
Others yesterday protested against French interior minister Manuel Valls, who denounced what he called "Islamist fascism" after Belaid, an outspoken critic of the Islamists, was shot outside his home on Wednesday.
Many people in yesterday's crowd - which comprised men, women and children, some in the attire of very conservative Muslims but others more conventionally dressed - carried printed posters saying: "The political assassination is a political crime against Tunisia".
"This is our answer to the media attack after the assassination of Chokri Belaid," said Abdulkader Leshab, who spent nine years in jail for membership of Ennahda under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown in a popular uprising two years ago.
"We condemn it, and we hate the way people are using it to attack Ennahda - even though they have nothing to gain from this."
Like many in the crowd, he blamed the country's problems on the political party of Ben Ali, known by its French acronym RCD. It is now embodied by the politician Beiji Caid Essebsi, who was interior minister in the former regime and now heads a political party supported by some of the secular elite who are disappointed with the new regime.
"Hey Essebsi, you coward, you cannot humiliate the Tunisian people," shouted the crowd.
But despite the show of unity, there continued to be political disagreement within Ennahda as to how to handle the situation. Hamadi Jebali, the prime minister, insisted yesterday, against the stated wishes of Ennahda, that he would present a new government by the middle of this week. If it did not win a vote of confidence, he is prepared to resign, according to Tunisian state media.