Tunisian PM Hamadi Jebali (C) waves as he arrives for a round of political talks in Carthage on February 15, 2013
Tunisian PM Hamadi Jebali (C) waves as he arrives for a round of talks with political party leaders in Carthage on February 15, 2013. He is set Monday to resume talks with political party leaders to form a new government of technocrats, despite strong opposition within his own ruling Islamist party Ennahda. © Gianluigi Guercia - AFP/File
Tunisian PM Hamadi Jebali (C) waves as he arrives for a round of political talks in Carthage on February 15, 2013
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Mohamed Hasni, AFP
Last updated: February 27, 2013

Uncertainty in Tunisia ahead of political talks

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali admitted defeat on Monday in his plan to form a government of technocrats amid a new rebuff from his own ruling Islamist party, but kept the door open to compromise.

"I say in all clarity that the initiative I presented -- that is to say, a government composed of members not belonging to any political parties -- failed to reach a consensus," Jebali said after talks with party leaders.

"Another form of government" was still a possibility, he added.

The prime minister had vowed to step down if his controversial proposal to form a non-partisan administration, designed to avert political turmoil in Tunisia but opposed by his Islamist party Ennahda, was thwarted.

"I will go tomorrow (Tuesday) to the president to discuss the next stages, but I noted progress during the political discussions in terms of seeking a consensus around another solution," Jebali said, without specifying whether he would quit.

The new formula should emerge "in the coming days," he said, adding further delays to the search for a solution to the ongoing political crisis which was triggered by the February 6 assassination of leftwing politician Chokri Belaid.

Jebali first proposed his initiative in the wake of public outrage over the the broad daylight killing, which came after months of failure by the ruling coalition to overhaul the government, and laid bare divisions within Ennahda.

The murder also enflamed simmering tensions between liberals and Islamists in the once proudly secular Muslim nation, with Belaid's family accusing Ennahda of his assassination, a charge the Islamists strongly denied.

Jebali insisted on Monday that despite its failure, his initiative had at least succeeded in "getting everyone around a table" and in preventing Tunisia "from falling into the unknown."

The new government has been bitterly opposed by Ennahda hardliners, represented by the Islamist party's veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi, who are refusing to give up key portfolios and insist on Ennahda's electoral legitimacy.

The Islamists control the interior, foreign and justice ministries and dominate the national assembly, where they hold 89 of 271 seats.

Ghannouchi said the representatives of some 15 parties had agreed at Monday's meeting on the need for a government with "political competences" and tasked with holding elections as soon as possible.

"We in Ennahda want to ensure that Jebali continues to chair (the cabinet), and so do all those who took part in this meeting," he told AFP.

Aziz Kirchen, representing President Moncef Marzouki's Congress for the Republic (CPR), said an agreement had been reached for "the formation of a mixed government" of politicians and technocrats, but without giving details.

Jebali had come under fresh attack from his party earlier on Monday, with its consultative council saying his proposed government of technocrats "does not meet the needs of the present time."

"We remain committed to the formation of a coalition government which derives its legitimacy from the October 23, 2011 elections," it said.

Complicating the political crisis engulfing Tunisia, media reports said the leader of Marzouki's CPR had resigned, while several other MPs from the party were defecting.

Mohammed Abbou was conspicuously absent from Monday's meeting.

His secular, centre-left party has voiced opposition to Jebali's plans, but is riven with internal divisions and differences with its Islamist allies.

As well as the row over the new government, there is deadlock over the drafting of the constitution, with parliament divided over the nature of Tunisia's future political system 15 months after it was elected.

Since the revolution that toppled former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 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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