TUNIS, Tunisia - Shaken by the assassination of a prominent leftist opposition leader that unleashed major protests, Tunisia's prime minister announced Wednesday that he would form a new government of technocrats to guide the country to elections "as soon as possible."
The decision by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali was a clear concession to the opposition, which has long demanded a reshuffle of the Islamist-dominated government. It also came hours after the first assassination of a political leader in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
The killing of 48-year-old Chokri Belaid, a secularist and fierce critic of Ennahda, the moderate ruling Islamist party, marked an escalation in the country's political violence and sparked allegations of government negligence - even outright complicity. It also bolstered fears that Tunisia's transition to democracy will be far more chaotic than originally hoped.
Protesters gather at the ambulance carrying the body of opposition leader Chokri Belaid in Tunis, Wednesday. The Tunisian opposition leader critical of the Islamist-led government and violence by radical Muslims was shot to death Wednesday, the first political assassination in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
"This is a sad day that shook the country regardless of our differences," Jebali said in an address to the nation, whose capital city still smelled of the tear gas lobbed at protesters angry over the killing. "We are at a crossroads, and we will learn from it to make a peaceful Tunisia, secure and pluralist, where we may differ but not kill each other."
The ruling coalition, led by Jebali's Ennahda party, had been in stalled negotiations with opposition parties to expand the coalition and redistribute ministerial portfolios in an effort to calm the country's fractious politics. Elections had been expected for the summer, but an exact date depended on lawmakers finishing work on a new constitution.
Jebali said the new ministers in the technocratic government "would not belong to any party and its task would be limited to organizing elections as soon as possible with a neutral administration." The statement implied that Jebali would be leading the new government and that its selection was imminent.
Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, kicking off a wave of pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa that have met with varying degrees of success.
With its relatively small, well-educated population of 10 million, Tunisia has been widely expected to have the best chance of successfully transitioning to democracy. Its first post-dictatorship election brought to power the moderate Islamists of Ennahda in a coalition with two secular parties.
With the fall of the country's secular dictatorship, however, hardline Islamist groups also have flourished and there have been a string of attacks by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis against arts, culture and people they deemed to be impious.
In the last few months, there also have appeared the Leagues to Protect the Revolution, groups that say they are fighting corruption and seeking out remnants of the Ben Ali regime.
But opposition leaders such as Belaid said the leagues have become Ennahda-backed goon squads that attacked opposition rallies. Last weekend saw a string of attacks against such meetings, including a rally held by Belaid's Popular Front in northern Tunisia.