Tunisia's political crisis showed no sign of being resolved on Thursday, amid warnings against a slide into the carnage that has swept fellow Arab Spring country Egypt since democratic polls.
Rached Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda that heads a coalition cabinet, slammed the opposition as "anarchists" for demanding the resignation of Tunisia's elected government.
Three weeks into a crisis triggered by the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi, Ghannouchi ruled out the formation of a government of technocrats as demanded by the opposition.
"That would spell danger for the country, it would push us towards the void and finish off the democratic experiment in Tunisia," he said.
He renewed Ennahda's offer of negotiations with the opposition to bring in other parties and form a government of national unity, and reiterated its roadmap for drawing up a new constitution and holding fresh elections by the end of 2013.
"In democracies, governments don't fall because of sit-ins or demonstrations but after elections or a lost vote of confidence in parliament," said the Ennahda chief.
Ghannouchi said a second round of negotiations between the government and the powerful UGTT trade union aimed at hammering out a compromise would be held on Monday, after an initial meeting this week failed to make any headway.
Ennahda's supporters are determined that after long years of repression under president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in Tunisia's 2011 revolution, the party not be denied a share of power.
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The Egyptian army's July 3 overthrow of elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi after massive street protests had already sharpened divisions in Tunisia, and both sides are wary of sliding into the turmoil of the fellow North African state.
On Wednesday, more than 500 people were killed in nationwide clashes following a crackdown by Egyptian security forces on Morsi supporters.
"What's happening in Egypt shows the need for all political parties in Tunisia to sit down at the negotiating table with a commitment to legitimacy and democracy... and without incitement to confrontation," Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki said.
His comments were echoed by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerville, who was in Tunis on Wednesday on a mediation mission aimed at narrowing the gulf between the government and Tunisia's diverse opposition.
"Of course Tunisia is not Egypt, and Egypt is not Tunisia. But what is happening in Egypt right now must not happen in Tunisia. That's why it's important to build bridges" between the rival camps, he said after talks with Marzouki, Ennahda's secular ally.
On Tuesday, the two sides held rival rallies, highlighting the deep divisions over the balance to be struck between secularism and democracy following the 2011 revolution.
The mainly secular opposition accuses Ennahda of eroding women's rights and of failing to take strong enough action against hardline Islamists accused of Brahmi's July 25 murder and the slaying in February of another prominent secular politician, Chokri Belaid.
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.
The 500,000-strong UGTT does not back the opposition's call for the dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly, tasked with drawing up a new constitution.