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Tunisia Islamists accept assembly move, urge talks

The north African country has been in almost continuous political turmoil since the February assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid

AFP , Thursday 8 Aug 2013
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement, speaks during an interview with a Reuters journalist in Tunis August 5, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

The Islamist party heading Tunisia's coalition said Wednesday it accepted a decision to suspend the work of the National Constituent Assembly and urged talks to form a national unity government.

Ennahda party chief Rached Ghannouchi said he hoped the ANC's suspension would have a beneficial outcome.

Speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar said Tuesday that the ANC would stop work until the government and opposition opened negotiations to break the political deadlock "in the service of Tunisia".

The north African country has been in almost continuous political turmoil since the February assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid. That was exacerbated by the murder on July 25 of another opposition figure, Mohammed Brahimi.

A party statement signed by Ghannouchi said: "Despite our formal and legal reservations about this initiative, we hope it will serve as a catalyst for political adversaries to sit down at the negotiating table."

Ennahda said it hoped for "a consensus solution during this sensitive time because of security problems and major economic challenges".

And it said the party supported "a national unity government comprising all those political forces convinced of the need to let the democratic process take its course" under the law.

Since the ANC's election in 2011, it has failed to hammer out a consensus on the new constitution following a revolution that ousted long-time president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Tunis to demand the government's resignation.

Wednesday's papers said Ennahda and its detractors must begin talks on ending the crisis gripping the nation before it is too late.

Le Quotidien, which is highly critical of Ennahda, said "everyone is unanimous as to the seriousness of the situation" and urged the party to make real concessions.

"The hour of compromise has come," it said.

Analysts say the moment of truth has also arrived.

"No party, including Ennahda, can ignore the position of the UGTT (Tunisian General Labour Union)... Ennahda cannot carry on without taking on board the fact that the (economic and social) forces in the country do not agree with it," said political scientist Slaheddine Jourchi.

The powerful half million-strong UGTT has organised a general strike to try to force the government's hand.

In addition to the political instability, Tunisian security forces have lost 10 soldiers since July 29 and have intensified an operation to hunt down Islamist militants holed up in the remote Mount Chaambi region along the Algerian border.

Brahmi's murder, as well as that of Belaid, have been blamed on radical Islamists, and the cabinet has been criticised for not doing enough to prevent the killings.

Washington urged Tunisians to favour "dialogue and peaceful means" for resolving disputes.

"Violence has no role in Tunisia's democratic transition, and violence will only lead to more violence, not solutions," said US State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.

The opposition has refused talks with the government until it steps down, while Ennahda has ruled out any dialogue conditional on its ouster.

Prime Minister Ali Larayedh has refused to quit, offering instead to broaden the coalition.

Tuesday's suspension of the assembly's work throws into question Larayedh's target of the ANC adopting a new constitution and electoral law by October 23 ahead of a December 17 election.

The opposition has held nightly gatherings since Brahmi's murder and has pledged to keep up the pressure during the four-day Muslim holidays starting on Thursday to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

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