Islamists disown PM over move to end Tunisian crisis

Reuters , Thursday 7 Feb 2013

Premier Hamdi Jebali's announcement that he would replace the current cabinet with a non-partisan one, in response to a widespread protests following a political assassination, was rejected by his own party Ennahda

A police officer salutes the ambulance carrying the body of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, as the convoy drives from his home to his father's home, Thursday Feb. 7, 2013 in Tunis (Photo: AP)

Tunisia's Islamists rejected on Thursday a plan by their party chief and prime minister to change the government after unrest over the killing of an opposition leader triggered its worst crisis since a 2011 revolution.

Clashes broke out between hundreds of stone-throwing youths and police firing teargas to disperse them in the southern town of Gafsa, but the streets were calm elsewhere in the North African state which gave birth to the Arab Spring uprisings.

Calls for a general strike raised the spectre of more trouble although the family of assassinated secular politician Chokri Belaid said his funeral, another possible flashpoint, might not be held until Friday.

Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali of Ennahda announced late on Wednesday he would replace the government led by his moderate Islamist party with a non-partisan cabinet until elections could be held, as soon as possible.

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

"The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party," said Abdelhamid 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."

Tunisia's main opposition parties also rejected any move to a government of experts and demanded 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.

Belaid was shot as he left home for work by a gunman who fled on the back of a motorcycle. That sent thousands of protesters onto the streets nationwide hurling rocks and fighting police in scenes recalling Egypt last month.

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, fount of the Jasmine Revolution that ousted dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

Although Belaid had only a modest political following, his sharp criticism of Ennahda policies spoke for many Tunisians who fear religious radicals are bent on snuffing out freedoms won in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Parliament to weigh new cabinet

Mehrzia Abidi, vice-president of the interim parliament which has been struggling for months to draft a new post-Ben Ali constitution, said it would discuss Jebali's proposal for temporary technocratic government on Thursday.

Sadok Belaid, a constitutional law expert, said the assembly would have to approve the cabinet overhaul. But the body's dysfunctional record raised the prospect of protracted deadlock that could kindle further unrest.

Political analyst Salem Labyed said the opposition appeared to want to leverage the crisis to its own advantage.

"It seems that the opposition wants to secure the maximum possible political gains but the fear is that the ... crisis will deepen if things remain unclear at the political level. That could increase the anger of supporters of the secular opposition, which may go back to the streets again," he said.

Many Tunisians complain that radical Salafi Islamists may hijack the democratic revolution, fearing Ennahda is coming increasingly under their sway.

Nervous about the extent of hardline Islamist influence and the volatility of the political impasse, big powers urged Tunisians to see through a non-violent shift to democracy.

But discontent has smouldered for some time not only over secularist-Islamist issues but also over the lack of progress towards better living standards expected after Ben Ali's exit.

In a reflection of investor fears about the crisis, the cost of insuring Tunisian government bonds against default rose to their highest level in more than four years on Thursday. It remains lower than that of unrest-wracked Egypt, however.

Lacking the huge oil and gas resources of neighbours Libya and Algeria, Tunisia counts tourism as a crucial currency earner, and further unrest could deter visitors.

Rebellion within cabinet

Jebali declared after Wednesday's protests that weeks of talks on reshaping the government had failed amid deadlock within the three-party coalition. One secular party threatened to bolt unless Ennahda replaced some of its ministers.

The opposition Nida Touns, Republican, Popular Front and Massar parties demanded that Jebali - who planned to stay on as caretaker prime minister - talk to them before making any move to dissolve his cabinet.

"The situation has changed now ... Consultations with all parties are essential," said Maya Jribi, head of the secular Republican party.

"All the government, including the prime minister, should resign," added Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister who heads the secular Nida Touns.

The day before his death Belaid was publicly lambasting a "climate of systematic violence". He said tolerance shown by Ennahda and its two, smaller secularist allies in the coalition government toward Salafists had allowed the spread of groups hostile to modern culture and liberal ideas.

As in Egypt, secular leaders have accused Islamists of trying to cement narrow religiosity in the new state. This dispute has held up a deal on a constitution setting the stage for a parliamentary election, which had been expected by June.

But unlike Egypt's government, Ennahda has struggled to form a stabilising partnership with key existing state institutions, as the Muslim Brotherhood has done with the Egyptian military, risk consultancy Stratfor said in an analysis on Wednesday.

"This inability or unwillingness to rely on the state security apparatus as a regime backer has left Ennahda with few useful tools to address the strengthening political opposition and popular forces increasingly calling for significant changes in the makeup of the government," Stratfor said.

Short link: