New Tunis protest as president urges national unity government

AFP , Tuesday 13 Aug 2013

Supporters of ruling Tunisian Ennahda party rally for national women's day on Tuesday ahead of opposition protest amidst political standoff

Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement wave flags during a rally along the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, in Tunis August 13, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Supporters of Tunisia's Islamist-led government rallied Tuesday to mark national women's day ahead of an opposition protest, as the president proposed a national unity cabinet to end a protracted crisis.

The government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party, and its detractors have been locked in a bitter feud sparked by the July assassination of an opposition politician, the second such killing this year.

The opposition accuses radical Salafists of the murders and blames the government for failing to rein in the jihadists. whose influence has risen since the Arab Spring uprising toppled the former regime in 2011.

Hundreds of people responded to calls by the government and gathered in the capital's central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the popular revolt.

The crowd, mostly women, pledged allegiance to Ennahda, which had said the rally would pay tribute to Tunisian women as "pillars of the democratic transition and national unity".

"The people still want Ennahda," protesters chanted. "We will sacrifice our blood and our soul for the sake of legitimacy," they said in reference to the October 2011 election won by Ennahda.

The opposition, which has accused Ennahda of flouting the rights of women, has called a rival rally from 1700 GMT to be attended by members of the powerful UGTT trade union and a number of women's groups.

Ennahda's secular ally, President Moncef Marzouki, called for a government of "national unity" to end the political standoff that has gripped the country since the July 25 murder of Mohamed Brahmi.

"There must be a government of national unity in which all political parties are represented," Marzouki, whose role is highly symbolic, told Shems-FM radio.

He was echoing Ennahda positions that reject forming of a government of technocrats as demanded by the opposition and the powerful UGTT.

His comments come after more than four hours of talks overnight between Ennahda party chief Rached Ghannouchi with UGTT leader Houcine Abbassi in a bid to ease the crisis.

Their discussions failed to achieve any concrete results but more talks are to be held later this week.

The 500,000-strong UGTT has been touted as a possible mediator between the government and the opposition -- although it does not back the latter's call for the dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly.

In his radio comments, Marzouki also called on the assembly, which suspended its work over the crisis, to resume drafting a much-delayed constitution.

The government of Prime Minister Ali Larayedh refuses to resign, offering instead to broaden the ruling coalition, and has called for general elections in December.

Larayedh told Shems-FM Tuesday: "We hope that... by the end of the week we will reach consensual solutions."

After their demonstration, opposition protesters are due to rally outside parliament, as they have done nightly since the assassination of Brahmi, who has been buried next to another slain politician, Chokri Belaid.

Authorities have said the same gun was used to kill Brahmi and Belaid in February, and accused jihadists of carrying out the two assassinations.

Women's day celebrates the anniversary of the adoption of the Personal Status Code on August 13, 1956, which gave women rights unequalled in the Arab world at the time.

Government critics say Ennahda has been too passive in dealing with radical imams who have called for the return of polygamy and child brides -- practices banned in 1956.

The party drew further criticism last year when it called for sexual equality to be replaced in Tunisia's new post-revolution constitution by "complementarity" of the genders.

Amel Radhouani, from the Femmes Libres (Free Women) group said Tuesday's march would send a clear message to the Islamists in power.

"This will not be a celebration but a march against terrorism, and Ennahda's attempts to take back women's gains."

UGTT official Najoua Makhlouf called the protest historic because it comes at a time of "political killings, terrorism and attempts to roll back women's rights."

Elsewhere the interior ministry said "terrorists" attacked a Tunisian border post near the frontier with Algeria overnight. It did not elaborate.

The army has been hunting Al-Qaeda-linked militants near the border since December and stepped up operations after the bodies of eight soldiers were found with their throats slit on July 29.

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