Middle East

Tunisia to vote on charter, new cabinet awaited

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki (L) shakes hands with Tunisia's Prime Minister-designate Mehdi Jomaa after Jomaa spoke during a news conference in Tunis January 26, 2014. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

TUNIS: Lawmakers were to vote Sunday on a new constitution, three years after Tunisia's revolution, with the premier-designate to unveil his cabinet on a landmark day for the Arab Spring's birthplace.

Mehdi Jomaa was again asked by President Moncef Marzouki to form a government to steer Tunisia out of crisis, after failing to muster sufficient political consensus to do so on Saturday.

"The president has once again placed his trust in me and tasked me with forming the government" within 15 days as laid down by Tunisian law, said Jomaa.

A presidential statement said the list would be submitted at 1800 (1700 GMT).

"We have taken a big step towards forming the government. It is almost ready and, inshallah (God willing), I will not take much time in submitting the lineup to the president," he said on state television.

Jomaa's difficulty in forging a consensus on the interim government of independents highlights the political divisions still plaguing Tunisia, after the assassinations last year of two prominent opposition politicians.

Those divisions caused further delays to the drafting of the new constitution, and eventually forced the coalition government led by Islamist party Ennahda to agree to step down after the constitution is adopted, under a political accord to end the crisis.

The Constituent Assembly has since agreed on a new charter, after vetting the document line-by-line over three weeks of painstaking negotiations and heated debate on issues such as women's rights and the role of Islam.

The resulting fundamental law, which has been in the works for two years, is a compromise between the ruling Islamists and the liberal opposition.

Lawmaker Karima Souid said the parliamentary session during which the new constitution is expected to be approved was postponed from the morning to the afternoon.

The vote was now expected to start at 1500 GMT.

The charter needs the support of two-thirds of the 217 assembly members to pass, or it must be put to a referendum.

If passed, and Jomaa succeeds in forming a new government, he still faces formidable challenges, notably in containing armed jihadists blamed for last year's political assassinations, and confronting persistent social problems, including poverty and unemployment, key factors behind the 2011 uprising.

Jomaa's cabinet will need to win a vote of confidence in parliament.

Several Tunisian media outlets said the main sticking point in the negotiations for a new government was the new interior minister.

Some opposition groups want the current minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, removed because he served in the government led by Ennahda, which has the largest bloc in parliament.

But others, not only Ennahda supporters, argue that the volatile security situation means that continuity is needed at the ministry.

"We aren't far from a solution, talks will continue," Jomaa said.

Ennahda's veteran leader Rachid Ghannouchi hailed the draft charter due to be passed on Sunday as a "historic achievement" which he said would enable the establishment of the first democracy in the Arab world.

Under the new constitution, executive power is divided between the prime minister, who will have the dominant role, and the president, who retains important prerogatives notably in defence and foreign affairs.

Islam is not mentioned as a source of legislation, although it is recognised as the nation's religion and the state is committed to "prohibiting any attacks on the sacred", while freedom of conscience is guaranteed.

Approval of the constitution is seen as a key step in Tunisia's political transition, more than three years after long-ruling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by the first popular uprising of the Arab Spring.

The vote, initially announced for Saturday, was pushed back to Sunday to allow lawmakers to reform the rules of the confidence vote.





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