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Tunisia seeks to restore calm

Turmoil follows murder of opposition politician - Leader reasserts aim of 'civil, not religious state'

by Angelique Chrisafis, Tunis, and agencies

(Source:  The Guardian Weekly)

Tunisia is on “a road to understanding” on a new national unity government to resolve the simmering political crisis brought on by the assassination of an opposition politician, the leader of the ruling moderate Islamist party told the Associated Press on Monday.

APAnger … mourners carry the coffin of Chokri Belaïd in Tunis last week
Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, said a new government could be announced this week, as the country that kicked off the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab spring teetered on the edge of a political crisis, following last Wednesday’s assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaïd.

“We are on the road to an understanding,” Ghannouchi said. “We are moving toward forming a government of national union.”

But last weekend a key secular government party said its ministers would quit amid anger over Ennahda’s handling of the crisis. The Congress for the Republic, which is also the party of Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki, said withdrawal of its ministers was linked to its long-running demands for cabinet changes.

Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia following the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after almost a quarter-century of exile, said that after their peaceful revolution, Tunisians are seeking a modern, democratic state. “We are for a civil state and not a religious government that rules in the name of God. The only legitimacy we accept is the one from the ballot boxes and popular will,” he said, adding that he is seeking a constitution that defends human rights and guarantees equality between the sexes.

The shooting dead of Belaïd, a leftleaning lawyer and outspoken critic of the government, shocked Tunisia and left the government reeling. It has heightened tension in the small Maghreb nation seen as the poster child for the Arab spring after it ousted its leader Ben Ali following 23 years of dictatorship in January 2011 with far less bloodshed and turmoil than countries such as Egypt or Libya.

There has been no claim of responsibility to it and there is no clear indication of who may have been behind it. The prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, said in a weekend TV interview that his proposed reshuffle towards a nonpolitical, caretaker government that would run Tunisia until elections could take place was the only way to soothe unrest or the country risked “a swing into chaos”. In a country with a mistrusted police force and justice system that remain largely unreformed since the revolution, there has been outrage at what represents a new kind of political murder: an assassination in broad daylight of a type not seen in Tunisia since colonial times.

Since Tunisia’s first free elections in October 2011, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda has headed a coalition government with two centre-left secular parties, in a transition process seen as a model for the region. But the government is bogged down by political stalemate. Parliament’s main role was to draw up a new constitution within a year, but that deadline has passed amid differences between secular parties and the Islamist movement on the shape of the nation and the role of religion in public life.

After Belaïd’s death, Jebali’s initial emergency proposal to completely dissolve government and replace politicians with technocrats sparked tensions within Ennahda, of which he is secretary general. In what appeared to be a rebuke to Jebali from within his own party, Ennahda said there had been no consultation on the plan. The proposed government changes appeared to highlight differences within the party between moderates and hardliners. Jebali then scaled back his proposals for a reshuffle. If it is rejected, he said he would resign.

Last Saturday, thousands held an Ennahda party, pro-government rally in central Tunis after tens of thousands had taken to the streets on Friday for Belaïd’s funeral, many shouting antigovernment slogans and accusing Ennahda of a lax approach to the increasing political violence in Tunisia.

At the Ennahda rally, some party members criticised plans for a caretaker technocrat cabinet, saying that legitimate politicians should lead government and Islamists had already made too many concessions to opposition demands.


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