Antoine Lambroschini, AFP
Last updated: February 27, 2013

Tunisian ruling Islamists to give up key ministries

Tunisia's ruling Islamists said on Wednesday they have agreed to give up key ministries to independents, a concession that could speed up the formation of a new government and end a political crisis.

"We confirm the 'neutralistion' of the four sovereign ministries," Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi said on Radio Kalima, referring to the interior, justice, foreign and defence portfolios.

It appeared to be a significant backdown from the powerful politician who had previously declared that Ennahda would "never give up power" which it secured through "the legitimacy of the ballot".

Ennahda has controlled the interior, justice and foreign ministries since Tunisia held its first free elections in October 2011, nine months after strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in an uprising that sparked the Arab Spring.

The defence portfolio is already in the hands of an independent, Abdelkarim Zbidi, who has held the post since the revolution.

Ghannouchi said a new government could now be formed "at the end of the week".

"We see that it is in the interests of the Tunisian government, in the transitional period and for the period to come, to bring together Islamists and secularists... even though we are the majority," he said.

Ennahda was responding to a demand by almost all of the opposition and the government's two secular, centre-left partners, Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic of President Moncef Marzouki.

Ghannouchi has said the new cabinet would be made up of "five or six parties," and suggested the Wafa movement, the Freedom and Dignity bloc and the Democratic Alliance as potential partners.

But Ettakatol spokesman Mohamed Bennour said his latest concession did not mean a positive compromise had been reached.

"There is an agreement that departments are entrusted to independents, but not the names of the ministers," he told AFP, adding talks on the matter were unlikely to be completed before "the middle of next week".

"There also remains the question of other departments," said Bennour, whose party is calling on Ennahda to reverse a series of disputed appointments in public institutions and regions of Tunisia.

Interior Minister Ali Larayedh was charged last week with forming a new government following the resignation of prime minister Hamadi Jebali, after his plan for a non-partisan government failed.

Jebali announced the plan on February 6, the day that a lone gunman shot dead leftist opposition leader Chokri Belaid outside his home in the capital Tunis.

The assassination of the fierce Ennahda critic triggered violence that deepened a crisis already building for months due to rising tensions between Islamists and liberals.

Larayedh, also an Ennahda member, has until March 8 to form a new government, which he has vowed will be "for all Tunisians".

The struggle to form a new government comes amid deadlock over the drafting of a constitution, with parliament divided over the nature of Tunisia's future political system 16 months after it was elected.

Since the revolution, Tunisia has also been rocked by violence blamed on radical Salafists, and ongoing social unrest over the government's failure to improve poor living conditions.

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