Middle East

Tunisian Islamists disown pm over move to defuse crisis

A Tunisian woman watches as mourners pour into Jebel Jelloud, a suburb of Tunis and Belaid’s hometown.

TUNIS: Tunisia’s governing Islamists Thursday rebuffed a plan by their party chief and prime minister to replace the government after unrest erupted over the killing of an opposition leader, deepening the worst crisis since the country’s 2011 revolution.

Turmoil flared in the North African state that launched the first of the Arab Spring uprisings, with protesters torching the local headquarters of the Islamist Ennahda party and a police station in the provincial town of Kelibia.

Police fired tear gas to scatter protesters near the Interior Ministry in Tunis and stone-throwing youths in the southern mining town of Gafsa, where at least seven were injured. Crowds ransacked electronics shops in Sfax.

As night fell, protesters attacked and ransacked a police station in the capital, witnesses said. Hundreds of youths threw furniture, equipment and files into the street before fleeing.

More trouble loomed Friday when labor unions plan a general strike in protest at the assassination of secular politician Chokri Belaid. His funeral is also scheduled for Friday.

An aide to Hussein Abassi, leader of the UGTT union, said he had received a death threat after announcing the first general strike in Tunisia in 34 years.

Wary of further violence, many shops in Tunis closed at 2 p.m. while France, the old colonial power in Tunisia, said it would shut its schools in Tunis Friday and Saturday.

Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali of Ennahda said late Wednesday he would dismiss the government led by his moderate Islamist party in favor of a non-partisan Cabinet until elections could be held. But the idea met swift resistance.

A senior Ennahda official said Jebali had not sought approval from his party, suggesting the Islamist group was split over the move to supplant the governing coalition.

“The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party,” said Abdel-Hamid Jelassi, Ennahda’s vice president. “We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with other parties about forming a coalition government.”

Ennahda’s two secular coalition partners as well as the main opposition parties also rejected any move to a government of technocrats, demanding as well that they be consulted before any new Cabinet is formed.

Political analysts said protracted deadlock could aggravate the unrest, which has underscored the chasm between Islamists and secular groups who fear that freedoms of expression, cultural liberty and women’s rights are in jeopardy just two years after the Western-backed dictatorship crumbled.

“In the likely event that there is no agreement, civil unrest will increase, reaching a level that cannot be contained by the police,” said Firas Abi Ali of the London-based Exclusive Analysis think tank.

“If unrest continued for more than two weeks, the army would probably reluctantly step in and back a technocrat government, as well as fresh elections for a new Constituent Assembly.”

Belaid was shot as he left home for work Wednesday by a gunman who fled on the back of a motorcycle. Thousands of protesters took to the streets nationwide, hurling rocks and fighting police.

No one claimed responsibility for the killing and the head of Ennahda said the party had nothing to do with it.

But a crowd set fire to the Tunis headquarters of Ennahda, which won the most seats in a free election 16 months ago. Protests also hit Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the Jasmine Revolution that ousted dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

While Belaid had only a modest political following, his criticism of Ennahda policies spoke for many Tunisians who fear religious radicals are bent on snuffing out freedoms won in the first of the revolts that rippled through the Arab world.

Pressured by Wednesday’s explosion of unrest, Jebali declared that weeks of talks on reshaping the government had failed amid infighting within his coalition. One secular party threatened to bolt unless some Ennahda ministers were sacked.

Discontent has festered for some time, not only over secularist-Islamist issues but also over the lack of progress toward better living standards expected after Ben Ali’s exit.

“We are already suffering from recession since the revolution,” said Fethi Ben Saleh as he closed his Tunis gift shop early Thursday afternoon. “I do not care about this conflict between Islamists and secularists. I hate them all.” 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 08, 2013, on page 1.




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