BEIRUT

Middle East

Ruling Islamists split over deepening Tunisia crisis

Tunisian protesters shout slogans during a demonstration after the death of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid, outside the Interior Ministry in Tunis February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

TUNIS: Tunisia's ruling Islamists Thursday rejected plans by the premier to form a government of technocrats while the main trade union called a general strike amid renewed unrest, deepening a crisis sparked by the killing of an opposition leader.

With tensions running high since the murder Wednesday of a leftist opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, clashes between police and protesters broke out in the capital and in a central town, AFP correspondents said.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who hails from the ruling Ennahda party, said in a televised address in the wake of public outrage at Belaid's killing that he would form a new administration of non-political technocrats.

Jebali, who is expected to remain in his post, did not specify that he was dissolving the existing government, nor did he set a date for the reshuffle which must be confirmed by the national assembly.

But Ennahda's parliamentary leader, Sahbi Atig, said his bloc of MPs rejected the plans, laying bare deep divisions within the Islamist party.

"We have rejected this proposal... The head of the government took the decision without consulting the (ruling) coalition or the Ennahda movement," he said on television.

Top Ennahda official Abdelhamid Jelassi also criticised Jebali's decision.

"As far as we are concerned, our country still needs a government coalition based on the results of the elections on October 23, 2011" that Ennahda won, said Jelassi.

Spokesman Adnene Manser said on Thursday President Moncef Marzouki had no information about any new government.

"The president has not received the resignation of the prime minister nor the details of the cabinet of technocrats announced by the prime minister," he told reporters.

The split in the ranks of the Islamists did nothing to calm tensions a day after violence in which one policeman was killed and Ennahda offices were torched and ransacked in a number of towns.

In the capital, police fired tear gas at demonstrators who staged a march despite a huge deployment of security forces in Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and where thousands had gathered Wednesday in scenes reminiscent of the revolt.

Clashes also erupted in the volatile central mining region of Gafsa where correspondents said protesters lobbed petrol bombs at police who responded with volleys of tear gas.

Fuelling fears that Belaid's assassination will further stoke political and social discontent that has been on the rise for several months, Tunisia's most powerful trade union called a general strike for Friday.

Tens of thousands of members are expected to take to the streets to coincide with the burial of Belaid after weekly prayers in the Muslim country, whose long-established secular tradition has been countered by the rise of one of the region's most powerful Islamist parties.

Hundreds of people gathered outside Belaid's home on Thursday near the spot where a lone gunman shot him dead the previous morning.

Tunisian lawyers, judges and some teachers started a strike on Thursday.

Courtrooms stood empty at the main courthouse in Tunis while lawyers in robes sang the national anthem.

"To the terrorists who killed Chokri, we say that we are not afraid," shouted barrister Chaouki Ettabib, to the applause of colleagues.

Ennahda has been squarely accused by Belaid's family of being behind the killing -- charges it vigorously denies.

The Tunisian League for Defence of Human Rights said threats and intimidation were continuing under the Ennahda-dominated government, and called for the protection of political figures.

Four opposition groups including Belaid's Popular Front bloc said they were pulling out of the National Constituent Assembly, elected in October 2011 but which has failed to draft a new constitution.

Pro-Ennahda militias have been accused of organising attacks on secular opposition groups already at loggerheads with Ennahda over the constitution.

 

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