TUNIS: Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali was seeking political support Tuesday for his plan to create a government of technocrats that could steer Tunisia out of crisis, but he faced resistance from his own Islamist Ennahda party.
The speaker of Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, said he will "strongly support" Jebali, adding that the country was in a "critical situation" after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a leftist opposition figure and fierce critic of the government critic.
The widow of Belaid has called on the present government to resign.
Jaafar, the leader of the secular Ettakatol, an ally of the ruling Ennahda, said he was ready to hand over all ministerial positions controlled by his party, including finance, tourism and education.
"It's make or break, but we don't want to break it," he said, adding that he hoped that Ennahda would put "national interests above partisan interests".
Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, opened the door for a possible compromise on the future government.
"The government that can save the situation in the country ... is a government of national coalition," he said, insisting however that the cabinet also "represent all the political forces".
Talks are under way, he said, with around six allies of Ennahda including the centre-left Congress for the Republic party of President Moncef Marzouki as well as Ettakatol.
The CPR had threatened to pull out of the Islamist-led government but party chief Mohamed Abbou told reporters Monday: "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."
On Monday, hundreds of Tunisians protested outside the national assembly demanding the government's resignation, among them Belaid's widow, Besma Khalfaoui.
"This government must resign today, not tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. It must not wait," she told AFP.
"Those are the rules of the political game: when a government fails, it must take responsibility."
The powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers has expressed its support to Jebali's initiative, stressing that the future government must prioritise security, offer a timetable for elections and engage in social dialogue.
Jebali has said he would resign if he was unable to form a cabinet of technocrats before the middle of the week.
He has also triggered a legal debate by saying that a cabinet reshuffle does not need the backing of the assembly, where Islamists control 89 of 271 seats. Ennahda rejects his arguments.
Ennahda hardliners are refusing to give up key portfolios and have warned they will take to the streets of the capital, as they did on Saturday, to insist on the party's right to govern following its October 2011 election triumph.
The February 6 killing of Belaid has deepened the turmoil in the country where the ruling coalition has for months failed to overhaul the government.
Since last Wednesday, Tunisia has seen street clashes between police and opposition supporters and attacks on Ennahda offices.
Belaid's funeral on Friday turned into a massive anti-Islamist rally, believed to be the largest since the revolution that ousted former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
His killing has enflamed tensions between liberals and Islamists over the direction of the once proudly secular Muslim nation, stoked by a controversial pro-Ennahda militia blamed for attacks on secular opposition groups.
Tunisia is also witnessing a deadlock over the drafting of the constitution, 15 months after the election of the assembly.
The often violent social conflicts have multiplied since the summer amid poverty and unemployment, two key factors that led to the revolution.
The rise of Salafist movement has further destabilised Tunisia, with the hardliners accused of regular attacks such as the one against the US embassy last September.
Since the revolution Tunisia has been under a state of emergency and the army is currently deployed in several cities to curb any fresh violence triggered after the murder of Belaid.