Tunisian Ennahda party supporters march through Tunis's Habib Bourguiba Avenue on February 16, 2013
Tunisian supporters of ruling Islamist party Ennahda march through Tunis's Habib Bourguiba Avenue during a demonstration on February 16, 2013. Supporters and opponents of Tunisia's Islamist-led government were expected to flood the streets of the capital in rival rallies marking national women's day, after a bid to resolve a weeks-old crisis foundered. © Gianluigi Guercia - AFP/File
Tunisian Ennahda party supporters march through Tunis's Habib Bourguiba Avenue on February 16, 2013
Antoine Lambroschini, AFP
Last updated: August 13, 2013

Tunisia braces for rival demonstrations as crisis talks fail

Supporters and opponents of Tunisia's Islamist-led government held rival rallies marking national women's day Tuesday, as the president proposed a national unity cabinet to bridge the crippling political divide.

The feuding camps held separate commemorations amid deep divisions over the balance to be struck between secularism and democracy following the 2011 overthrow of veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The mainly secular opposition accuses the moderate Islamist Ennahda party that leads the government of eroding women's rights and of failing to take strong enough action against hardline Islamists accused of murdering two prominent secular politicians this year.

Ennahda insists it has the right to lead the government after emerging as the largest party in an October 2011 election for a constituent assembly but has called on its opponents to join a broader governing coalition.

Anti-government parties said tens of thousands of people had joined the opposition rally in Tunis, commemorating the anniversary of the 1956 law that gave Tunisian women rights then unequalled in the Arab world.

Demonstrators chanted slogans both for women's rights and against Ennahda, an AFP correspondent reported.

"Tunisian women are free, out with the Muslim Brotherhood," they shouted. "Tunisian women are Muslim but not Islamist."

Women accounted for the majority of the much smaller crowd that responded to the government's call for a demonstration in the capital's central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the revolt that overthrew Ben Ali.

"The people still want Ennahda," the pro-government demonstrators chanted. "We will sacrifice our blood and our soul for the sake of legitimacy," they called in reference to the party's 2011 election win.

The July 3 overthrow by the army of Egypt's elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi after massive street protests has sharpened divisions in Tunisia. Ennahda's supporters are determined that after long years of repression under Ben Ali, the party not be denied a share of power.

Ennahda's secular ally, President Moncef Marzouki, called for a government of national unity to end the political standoff that has gripped the country since the July 25 murder of opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi.

"There must be a government of national unity in which all political parties are represented," Marzouki, whose role is highly symbolic, told Shems-FM radio.

He was echoing Ennahda positions that reject forming of a government of technocrats as demanded by the opposition and the powerful UGTT trade union.

His comments come after more than four hours of talks overnight between Ennahda party chief Rached Ghannouchi and UGTT leader Houcine Abbassi in a bid to find a compromise.

Their discussions failed to achieve any concrete results but more talks are to be held later this week.

The 500,000-strong UGTT has been touted as a possible mediator between the government and the opposition. It does not back the opposition's call for the dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly.

Marzouki urged the assembly, whose speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar last week suspended its work over the crisis, to resume drafting a much-delayed constitution.

The government of Prime Minister Ali Larayedh refuses to resign, offering instead to broaden the ruling coalition, and has called for a general election to be held in December after completion of the new charter.

Larayedh told Shems-FM Tuesday: "We hope that... by the end of the week we will reach consensual solutions."

Government critics say Ennahda has been too passive in dealing with radical imams who have called for the return of polygamy and child brides -- practices banned in 1956.

The party drew further criticism last year when it called for sexual equality to be replaced in Tunisia's new post-revolution constitution by "complementarity" of the genders.

Amel Radhouani, from the Femmes Libres (Free Women) group said Tuesday's march would send a clear message to the Islamists in power.

"This will not be a celebration but a march against terrorism, and Ennahda's attempts to take back women's gains."

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