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Tunisia in crisis with secular ministers poised to quit

February 11, 2013

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali (C) arrives ahead of a meeting with British Ambassador to Tunisia Christopher O'Connor in Tunis, on February 11, 2013. Jebali, who formed his government in December 2011, first announced his plan for a non-political government of technocrats in the immediate aftermath of Belaid's murder. — AFP Photo

TUNIS: The secular party of   was poised to pull out of Tunisia's government Monday, threatening to plunge the country deeper into a political crisis sparked by the killing of a leftwing politician.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali's gamble on forming a new cabinet of technocrats in defiance of his religious party after the murder of an opposition leader has left Tunisia in political limbo, with possible resignations from the government.

“Tunisians hold their breath, with their eyes fixed on Hamadi Jebali, who on Monday begins a long week,” said the website of the newspaper Leaders.

“Will the great task succeed that he has set for himself, for his own Ennahda party, his two other partners (in Tunisia's ruling coalition) the CPR and Ettakatol and the whole political class?” the paper asked.

The ministers of Marzouki's Congress for the Republic (CPR) are on the verge of pulling out of the cabinet because their demands that two conservative ministers should be replaced had not been met, according to a party leader, Chokri Yacoub, quoted by the official TAP news agency.

Another senior member, Tunisia's secretary of state for foreign affairs Hedi Ben Abbes, told AFP a decision would be announced on Monday on the possible resignation of the CPR's three ministers and two secretaries of state.

A source close to the president said last-minute talks were underway between Ennahda and the CPR, adding that a compromise was possible.

The killing on Wednesday of Chokri Belaid, a leftist politician and fierce critic of the religious party, triggered three days of violent protests and prompted the prime minister to announce that he would form new a non-partisan government of technocrats.

One policeman was killed and 59 colleagues wounded in the unrest, according to the interior ministry.

Jebali, a moderate within his Ennahda party, on Saturday threatened to quit and warned of chaos unless the interior, justice and foreign ministries held by fellow religious conservatives go to independents in the administration.

He set a target date of the middle of this week for the shake-up, which appeared to have the support of Ennahda's centre-left allies as well as the secular opposition.

But the plan has laid bare divisions within Ennahda's ranks.

Party hardliners are refusing to give up the key portfolios, and have warned that they will take to the streets of the capital, as they did in on Saturday, to insist on Ennahda's right to govern following its October 2011 election triumph.

“The legitimacy crisis of the current regime continues to worsen,” said Tunisia's French-language daily La Presse.

It praised Jebali's plan to form a government of technocrats, but said it was “only useful if it included a broad section of the political landscape.” Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi has played down the party crisis.

“There will be no division within Ennahda which is committed to its institutions,” he said in an interview published in the Algerian daily El Khabar.

“The party is very strict when it comes down to its unity. Differences in opinion exist within the party and are freely expressed. That's why I think Ennahda is not under threat.”

Since Wednesday, Tunisia has seen street clashes between police and opposition supporters and attacks on Ennahda offices, while Belaid's funeral on Friday turned into a massive anti-Islamist rally, believed to be the largest since the revolution.

“The people want to protect the legitimacy of the ballot,” pro-Ennahda protesters shouted on Saturday on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the 2011 uprising that ousted ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Belaid, who accused the ruling party of stealing the revolution, was gunned down outside his home. His supporters and family openly blamed Ennahda for eliminating him – a charge it has flatly denied.

The killing has enflamed tensions between liberals and religious conservatives, simmering for months over the future direction of the once proudly secular Muslim nation, and stoked by a controversial pro-Ennahda militia blamed for attacks on secular opposition groups.

Divisions in the national assembly have also blocked progress on the drafting of a new constitution.