Middle East

Tunisia crisis deepens as CPR demands blood

Young demonstrators carrying posters of assassinated leftist politician Chokri Belaid shout during a demonstration calling for Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and his cabinet to step down at the National Constituent Assembly in Tunis, February 11, 2013. A party led by interim President Moncef Marzouki said on Monday it had "frozen" its withdrawal from Tunisia's coalition government while talks continue on a political crisis sharpened by the killing of an opposition politician. Belaid's killing - Tu

TUNIS: Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki’s secular party said Monday that it would stay in the ruling coalition, but demanded the resignation of key Islamist ministers amid deepening political uncertainty.

“We have decided to freeze our decision to withdraw our ministers from the government, but if in one week we don’t see any changes, we will quit the government,” said Mohammad Abbou, Congress for the Republic (CPR) party chief.

The centre-left party is demanding the resignation of the justice and foreign ministers from Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s Islamist Ennahda party, amid soaring political tensions after the killing of a leftist opposition leader.

“Two days ago we presented the resignation of our ministers, but we were contacted yesterday evening by the leaders of Ennahda, who replied favorably to all our demands,” Abbou told a news conference.

He stressed that the CPR opposed the planned formation of a non-partisan government of technocrats, announced by Jebali in the wake of public outrage at the murder of Chokri Belaid, a leftist politician and fierce critic of the Islamists.

The killing triggered three days of violent protests in which one policeman was killed and 59 others wounded, according to the Interior Ministry.

“We are against a government of technocrats as it would allow for the return of figures from the former regime” of ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Abbou said.

Ennahda, which heads the coalition government, has also rejected the plan, fueling a political crisis and laying bare the divisions within the party, in which Jebali is considered a moderate.

Hundreds of Tunisians Monday protested outside the national assembly demanding the government’s resignation, among them Belaid’s wife Besma Khalfaoui.

“This government must resign today, not tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. When a government fails, it must take responsibility,” she told AFP as those around her shouted: “The people want the regime to fall.”

Jebali, who has set a target date of the middle of this week to form a transitional, non-partisan government, stuck to his guns Monday, saying he had “no other choice,” and renewing his threat to quit if he failed to achieve his goal.

“The situation is ... urgent, there is a danger of violence. I am responsible for the government, I cannot wait,” the premier told French newspaper Le Monde.

He said the new government’s priorities would include development, job creation and reducing high living costs, addressing anger over poor living standards that continues to drive unrest in Tunisia two years after the revolution.

Despite opposing Jebali’s plan, Abbou described it as “historic and positive, seeing how he went beyond his party,” but insisted that people “respect the legality” of the elected government.

In contrast, the third party in the coalition government, Ettakatol, threw its support behind the shake-up, with Finance Minister Elyes Fakhfakh saying it was necessary to “ensure the best possible success of this initiative.”

Ennahda hardliners are refusing to give up the key portfolios, warning that they will take to the capital’s streets, as they did Saturday, to insist on the party’s right to govern following its October 2011 election triumph.

Since Wednesday, Tunisia has seen attacks on Ennahda offices and street clashes between police and opposition supporters, while Belaid’s funeral Friday turned into a massive anti-Islamist rally, believed to be the largest since the revolution.

The killing has enflamed tensions between liberals and Islamists, simmering for months over the future direction of the once proudly secular Muslim nation, and stoked by a controversial pro-Ennahda militia blamed for attacks on secular opposition groups.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2013, on page 9.




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