The New York Times
Tunisia's governing Islamist party, Ennahda, thrust into power by the Arab Spring, has agreed to step down after months of political wrangling with a hard-bargaining opposition.
In three weeks, the Ennahda-led government is to hand over power to an independent caretaker government that will lead the country through elections in the spring. The deal comes as part of negotiations to restart Tunisia's democratic transition after secular opposition groups, protesting the assassinations of two of their politicians, stalled work on a new constitution and an election law this summer.
The two sides will enter discussions this week mediated by the Tunisian General Labor Union, the nation's largest. Its deputy secretary general, Bouali Mbarki, announced Ennahda's acceptance of the plan on Saturday.
The move comes less than three months after the Islamist government of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, also elected during the Arab Spring uprisings, was ousted by the military.
Ennahda officials have repeatedly made statements in recent weeks signaling the party's readiness to resign as a way to break the political impasse. The opposition, and the union, have until now pressed for more concrete action.
The union has scheduled three weeks for talks on a new government. During that time, the National Constituent Assembly, the body in charge of writing Tunisia's new constitution, is expected to ratify it and confirm appointments to the election commission, resuming work after a two-month hiatus. After that, Ennahda's coalition government will resign.
The assembly, where Ennahda holds the largest bloc of seats, will remain in place to serve as a check on the new government.
Ennahda decided to step down despite resistance from some of its members, saying Tunisia's transition to democracy, which began after the president was toppled nearly two years ago, can succeed only with full political consensus.
Party members have criticized their leaders as having given away too much, Rafik Abdessalam, the former foreign minister, said at a news conference on Monday. "It is being described as the party of concessions," he said. "We are not ashamed of these concessions because they are needed by Tunisia and to secure our democratic experience so that Tunisia can reach a safe shore."
In fact, the country is so polarized, and opposition from leftist and secular parties, including the labor union, has been so dogged, that Ennahda leaders acknowledge that they are better off having a neutral government that is accepted by all sides to run the elections. Ennahda was the largest winner in elections in October 2011, promising a model government that would blend Islamist principles with pluralism. But it has since lost popularity amid economic decline and a growing threat from terrorism.
Tunisia has avoided the open violence of Egypt and Libya in its democratic transition since it began the Arab Spring with a popular uprising against President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Opposition parties have run a campaign of walkouts, sit-ins and evening rallies since the two assassinations to force the government to resign. Ennahda countered with its own rallies, busing in supporters for speeches, music and fireworks.
With neither side strong enough to defeat the other, the Islamists and their opponents have ended up coming to the negotiating table. Yet Ennahda's nearly two-year journey in government has been one of steady concessions and backing down. And it has been a sharp lesson for the Islamists: their party has been most weakened by extremist Islamists linked to Al Qaeda.
Since the assassination of a prominent leftist politician, Chokri Belaid, in February, which brought accusations that it was soft or even in cahoots with Islamist terrorists, Ennahda has steadily been on the retreat. After the assassination, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned, saying the government had "disappointed" Tunisians with squabbling instead of leadership.
Mr. Jebali was the first to suggest handing power to a government of technocrats. Ennahda opted for a reshuffle but appointed independent nonparty figures to critical posts, including the Interior and Justice Ministries.
Then, in July, another opposition politician, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated in broad daylight in front of his family, bringing another wave of protests against the Ennahda government, even though the government this time quickly identified the culprits as an extremist Islamic cell linked to Al Qaeda, and blamed it for the Belaid assassination as well.
Finally, the ouster of Mr. Morsi -- allied with the Muslim Brotherhood -- encouraged the Tunisian opposition to try to oust the government. Ennahda responded with further concessions, dropping all of its outstanding constitutional demands, including an article stating that Islam was the religion of the state and another that would have prevented a key rival, former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, from running for president.
Working out the details of the agreement remains difficult. Distrust runs high, and as the end of the transition period nears, the political parties have entered a hard-nosed power struggle.
"From 2011 we moved to another agenda, from the demands for a transitional democracy to a real struggle for power," said Abdel Basset Ben Hassen, head of the Arab Institute for Human Rights. "Because of the change we have this tension and a lot of frustration."
READ FULL SOURCE ARTICLE: 09/28/2013
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