TUNIS: Tunisia's secular opposition threatened on Thursday to step up anti-government protests after the head of the ruling Islamist party rejected its demand to make way for a non-party government.
Ennahda party chairman Rached Ghannouchi offered to form a national unity government if all political parties take part, but said a caretaker cabinet of non-partisan technicians could not "manage the delicate situation in the country".
Speaking a day after Egypt's army cracked down on backers of deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, he also warned the opposition not to flirt with the idea of a military coup.
The Islamist-opposition standoff amounted to the deepest crisis that Tunisia, one of the most secular Muslim countries, has faced since launching the "Arab Spring" revolutions by overthrowing autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.
Jilani Hammami, a leader of the opposition Salvation Front of a dozen parties formed last month after the second killing of a secular politician by suspected Islamist radicals this year, said Ghannouchi's rejection "shows Ennahda's true face".
"They have announced a power struggle with the opposition," he said. "We will only accept the dissolution of the government. We will step up pressure around the country and launch a campaign to make the Islamists leave office."
Sami Tahri, deputy secretary general of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) federation, said Ghannouchi's position was "a step backwards that goes against the will of a large part of the people".
The UGTT, a broad-based organisation that could prove decisive in any showdown between Ennahda and the opposition, will announce early next week how it will step up its campaign for a non-partisan government, he said.
Ghannouchi's declaration effectively ended three weeks of crisis discussions in which Ennahda seemed to be edging towards a deal with the opposition. Even his deputy party leader Hamadi Jebali backed the call for a non-party government on Wednesday.
At a news conference on Thursday, Ghannouchi said "we refuse a non-partisan government because this type of government could not manage the delicate situation of the country".
"Events in Egypt should push us towards dialogue," he said, calling Wednesday's bloody crackdown - in which at least 525 people were killed - "a failure for democracy in Egypt".
"Those who want another al-Sisi in Tunisia," he said, referring to Egyptian military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, "should not continue to dream about that".
Ghannouchi admitted that Tunisia's first Islamist-led government had not handled some economic and social problems all that well. "We've made mistakes, but that doesn't merit a coup d'etat," he said.
Few observers expect Tunisia's military to step in to resolve the current crisis because it does not have the same tradition of political intervention and economic empire-building as its counterparts in Egypt.
But Tunisia's opposition has been emboldened by the way the Egyptian military, acting after a renewed wave of protests against Mursi, ousted the Islamist leader last month and drove his Muslim Brotherhood from power.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the first senior European official to visit Tunisia since the crisis broke out three weeks ago, urged both sides to pursue a dialogue and held up Egypt as an example not to be followed.
"Tunisia is not Egypt," he said after a meeting with Prime Minister Ali Larayedh. "Tunisia is on a path of change and what happened in Egypt must not happen in Tunisia."
He said a solution was possible through dialogue "if all parties now act with the necessary far-sightedness and do justice to their responsibility for the country".
The opposition parties have said they will not consider any cooperation with Ennahda until it steps down, a step Ghannouchi refuses to take.
Meanwhile, an assembly elected to draw up a new constitution within a year missed that deadline and was then suspended after leftist leader Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated in late July.
Jihadi militants have also stepped up attacks to destabilise the government.
Ghannouchi said the constituent assembly should first resume its work. "The constituent assembly should reopen quickly to finish the constitution and then proceed to elections," he said.