PM's party dismisses plan to oust government

Tunisians flee the effects of tear gas fired by riot police during a demonstration in the capital Tunis yesterday against the killing of influential opposition politician Chokri Belaid. photograph: louafi larbi/reuters

Tunisians flee the effects of tear gas fired by riot police during a demonstration in the capital Tunis yesterday against the killing of influential opposition politician Chokri Belaid. photograph: louafi larbi/reuters


Tunisia’s governing Islamists yesterday rebuffed a plan by their party chief and prime minister to replace the government after unrest erupted over the killing of an opposition leader, deepening the worst crisis since the country’s 2011 revolution.

Turmoil in the north African state that spawned the Arab Spring uprisings flared anew, with protesters setting ablaze the local headquarters of the main Islamist Ennahda party and a police station in the provincial town of Kelibia.

Police fired tear gas to scatter protesters near the interior ministry in Tunis and stone-throwing youths in the southern mining town of Gafsa, where at least seven were injured. Crowds ransacked electronics shops in Sfax.

Further disturbances loom today when labour unions plan a general strike in protest at the assassination of secular politician Chokri Belaid. His politically charged funeral is also expected to be held.

An aide to Hussein Abassi, leader of the UGTT union, Tunisia’s biggest, said he had received a death threat after announcing the country’s first general strike in 34 years.

Prime minister Hamdi Jebali of Ennahda announced late on Wednesday that he would dismiss the government led by his moderate Islamist party in favour of a non-partisan cabinet until elections could be held soon. But the idea met swift resistance.

‘Coalition government’

A senior Ennahda official said Mr Jebali had not sought approval from his party, suggesting the Islamist group was split over the move to supplant 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.”

Ennahda’s two secular coalition partners and the main opposition parties also rejected any move to a government of technocrats, demanding as well that 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.

Mr Belaid was shot as he left home for work on Wednesday by a gunman who fled on the back of a motorbike. That sent thousands of protesters into the streets around the country, hurling rocks and fighting police, similar to disturbances in 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.

While Mr 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 revolts that rippled through the Arab world.

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

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

“The revolution at the beginning was a fight for dignity and freedom, but violence is taking over,” said French foreign minister Laurent Fabius. “I want to offer France’s support to those who want to end the violence. We cannot let closed-mindedness and violence take over.”

Lack of progress

But discontent has festered 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.

Shortly before his death, Mr Belaid said tolerance shown by Ennahda and its two smaller secularist allies towards Salafists had allowed the spread of groups hostile to modern culture in what has been one of the most broadly secular Arab states.

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. – (Reuters)