Middle East

Tensions rise in Tunisia as PM threatens to quit

A supporter of the ruling Ennahda party holds a firework as he takes part in a demonstration in Tunis February 9, 2013. REUTERS/Anis Mili

Tensions rise in Tunisia as PM threatens to quit

TUNIS: Tunisia's prime minister threatened to quit on Saturday and warned of chaos unless key ministries held by fellow Islamists go to independents in a new government of non-partisan technocrats.

Hamadi Jebali said he would resign within days if he failed to form the new government, even as his Ennahda party rejected a planned new cabinet and several thousand party supporters took to the streets to oppose his plans.

Jebali said he took the decision to form a technocrat government after the murder on Wednesday of leading government critic Chokri Belaid that sparked days of unrest and political uncertainty in Tunisia as tensions fray.

"All the ministries will be independent, including the interior, justice and foreign affairs ministries," Jebali told France 24, in an interview that threw down the gauntlet to those within his party who are refusing to relinquish power.

"I had to take the decision without consulting the political parties, the day of the assassination, fearing that the country would slide into chaos," he said.

Ennahda supporters rallied in Tunis to press their demands that the Islamist-dominated cabinet remain untouched, deepening a crisis gripping the government just over two years after the revolution.

"If the initiative fails, what would you suggest to the Tunisian people, what alternative? The law of the jungle?" Jebali asked, addressing the country's political class.

Since Wednesday, the country has witnessed street clashes between police and opposition supporters and attacks on Ennadhda's offices, while Belaid's funeral procession on Friday turned into a massive anti-Islamist rally.

"The people want to protect the legitimacy of the ballot," the pro-Ennahda protesters shouted on Saturday as they gathered on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the 2011 uprising that ousted ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Belaid, who accused the Islamist party of stealing the revolution, was gunned down outside his home, with his supporters and family openly blaming Ennahda for eliminating him, charges it has flatly denied.

Ennahda supporters chanted anti-French slogans after French Interior Minister Manuel Valls denounced what he said was "Islamist fascism" in Tunisia.

Tensions between liberals and Islamists have been simmering for months over the future direction of the once proudly secular Muslim nation.

Their divisions within the national assembly have blocked progress on the drafting of a new constitution.

But the crisis has also laid bare divisions within the party itself, and inflamed anti-Islamist sentiment, fuelled by a controversial pro-Ennahda militia that has been implicated in a wave of attacks on secular opposition groups.

Jebali, who formed his government in December 2011 and is considered a moderate within his party, first announced his plan to form a non-political government of technocrats in the immediate aftermath of Belaid's murder.

"I will present the team no later than the middle of next week," he told Tunisian media on Saturday.

"If it is accepted... I will continue to carry out my duties as head of the government. Otherwise, I will ask the president of the republic to find another candidate to form a new government."

Saturday's protest was called to "defend the legitimacy of the national constituent assembly," in which the Ennahda-dominated coalition holds a majority, but whose support Jebali has said he doesn't need to form a new cabinet.

His own parliamentary bloc had already rejected the plan, with Sahbi Atig, Ennahda's leader in the national assembly, criticising Jebali for not consulting his party.

Saturday's protest was on a far smaller scale than the massive turnout for Belaid's funeral on Friday that turned into an anti-Islamist rally.

On Friday night, protesters torched Ennahda's headquarters in Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of the uprising just over two years ago, as well as the office of an Islamist NGO in Souk Jedid, 17 kilometres (11 miles) away.

The left-wing leader's funeral coincided with a widely-observed general strike called by the powerful 500,000-strong General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT).

The strike was believed to be the biggest since January 14, 2011 -- the day Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, where he remains in exile.





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