Tunisian president’s party pulls out of Islamist-led government

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Tunisian president’s secular Congress for the Republic Party pulled out on Sunday from the Islamist-led government as Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali moved to form an independent Cabinet of experts in a bid to contain a political crisis that rose following the assassination last week of an opposition leader.

“We have been saying for a week that if the foreign and justice ministers were not changed, we would withdraw from the government,” party official Ben Amor told Reuters.

Jebali’s gamble on forming a new government in defiance of his own Islamist party left Tunisia in political limbo on Sunday.

On Saturday, the prime minister, a moderate within his Ennahda party, threatened to quit and warned of chaos unless key ministries held by fellow Islamists go to independents in a new government of non-partisan technocrats.

Jebali, who has center-left allies including President Moncef Marzouki as well as the support of the secular opposition, has set a target date of the middle of this week for the shake-up.

La Presse newspaper gave an upbeat assessment on Sunday.

“The government of technocrats announced by Hamadi Jebali appears to be on the right track, giving hope to large segments of public opinion who were totally demoralized by the assassination of Belaid,” it said.

But Ennahda has warned it will take to the streets, as it did on Saturday when several thousand supporters demonstrated in Tunis to insist on Ennahda’s right to govern following its October 2011 election triumph.

Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi on Sunday 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, and Belaid’s funeral on Friday turned into a massive anti-Islamist rally.

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

Belaid, who accused the Islamist 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.

Tensions between liberals and Islamists have simmered for months over the future direction of the once proudly secular Muslim nation. Divisions in the national assembly have blocked progress on the drafting of a new constitution.

But the crisis has also laid bare divisions within the party itself, and inflamed anti-Islamist sentiment, fuelled by a controversial pro-Ennahda militia that has been implicated in attacks on secular opposition groups.

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.

Saturday’s protest was called to “defend the legitimacy of the national constituent assembly,” in which the Ennahda-dominated coalition holds a majority, but whose support Jebali has said he does not need to form a new cabinet.

His own parliamentary bloc had already rejected the plan, with Sahbi Atig, Ennahda’s leader in the national assembly, criticizing Jebali.

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