Tunisia PM to announce new cabinet line-up Saturday, or quit

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Embattled Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said on Thursday he will announce a new government line-up on Saturday, and warned that he will quit if it is rejected.

Jebali has been pushing to form a government of technocrats in defiance of his Islamist Ennahda party since the murder last week of vocal government critic and leftist figure Chokri Belaid plunged the country into political crisis.

“I want to go through with this initiative,” Jebali told reporters on the sidelines of consultations with party leaders.

“Tomorrow morning (Friday) I will meet all the parties who have, or have not, accepted this initiative.”

“On Saturday I will announce the new government line-up and if it is rejected I will submit my resignation to the president,” he added.

Ennahda has rejected a new government made up exclusively of technocrats and called for a pro-Islamist rally on Saturday to back its legitimacy.

The Islamists have joined ranks with the center-left Congress for the Republic Party of President Moncef Marzouki, and two other parties, in proposing that the new cabinet comprise both politicians and independents.

But Jebali on Thursday insisted that the criteria for being in the new cabinet must include non-partisanship as well as a firm engagement by future ministers not to run in the next elections.

“This is the proposal I am making for the country, and the parties will be held responsible for its success or failure,” he told reporters.

“The parties must realize that there can be no bargaining for this initiative to go through.”

“They can, however, present their opinion which is normal in a democracy,” he said.

Jebali has the backing of secular opposition parties as well as the support of Ettakatol, an ally of Ennahda, headed by Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar.

Both the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers and the union of employers UTICA have expressed support for Jebali’s initiative, seeing in it a way to emerge from the crisis.

Ben Jaafar, leader of the secular Ettakatol, said this week he was ready to hand over all ministerial positions controlled by his party, including finance, tourism and education.

But hardliners of Ennahda - which controls 89 of the 217 seats in the National Constituent Assembly after an October 2011 election - refuse to give up key portfolios.

One of the party’s vice presidents, Mohamed Akrout, called on supporters to rally on Saturday in support of the Islamists.

“Supporters of Ennahda must defend their revolution and the interests of the people,” Akrout said in a video posted on Wednesday on the party’s Facebook page.

The February 6 killing of Belaid has enflamed tensions between liberals and Islamists over the direction of the once proudly secular Muslim nation, with opposition protesters engaging in street clashes with police.

There is also deadlock over the drafting of the constitution, 15 months after the election of the assembly, and the country has been further destabilized by the rise of Salafists, accused of deadly attacks.

Poverty and unemployment, two key factors that led to the revolution that ousted Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, continue to grip the country.

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