UNREST: A protester wears a Tunisian flag during a demonstration in Tunis on Thursday. Picture: REUTERS
UNREST: A protester wears a Tunisian flag during a demonstration in Tunis on Thursday. Picture: REUTERS

THE Islamist party dominating Tunisia’s ruling coalition on Thursday rejected its own prime minister’s decision to form a non-partisan technocratic government to try to appease critics, signalling that the political crisis brought on by the assassination of a prominent leftist politician is far from over.

The announcement by Ennahda throws into question efforts to resolve one of the worst crises Tunisia has faced since its revolution two years ago and makes plain that there are divisions not just between the government and the opposition, but also within the ruling party itself.

The country’s main labour union also declared a general strike for Friday over the assassination, a provocative move that will shut the country down and is expected to inflame tensions in a country already on edge after Chokri Belaid, a fierce government critic, was shot several times in his car just outside his home on Wednesday morning by unknown assailants.

Demonstrations erupted on Wednesday around the country and had to be quelled by tear gas. Though the capital, Tunis, was quiet on Thursday amid cold weather and a heavy downpour, the country’s Radio Mosaique reported full-scale riots in the southern mining city of Gafsa, where Belaid’s Popular Front coalition of leftist parties has a great deal of support.

Tunisia had been seen as a model for the transition to democracy after its people ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and kicked off the Arab Spring, but political violence and allegations of government negligence have dimmed hopes. The new crisis has raised fears it may not be an exception to the turmoil in the region.

Ennahda was long repressed by Ben Ali, but after his overthrow in January 2011, the well-organised movement dominated subsequent elections and now rules in coalition with two secular parties.

Relations between the government and the opposition had deteriorated in recent months and talks over a government reshuffle had gone nowhere until the crisis. Meanwhile, critics such as Belaid had accused the government of employing thugs to attack meetings of the opposition.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced late on Wednesday that he would dissolve the government and form a new one of technocrats to manage the country until elections, giving in to the longstanding opposition demand in a widely welcomed move.

On Thursday, however, the party rejected the move and maintained that it was not going to toss away legitimacy it had gained in elections.

"The position of Ennahda is that the troika (the three-party ruling coalition) will continue to lead the country but it is open to a partial ministerial reshuffle," party spokesman Abdallah Zouari said.

This position, however, is that of the party before the crisis when lengthy talks over a cabinet reshuffle had already broken down.

A high-level member of the party who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject said the party was already in talks with its coalition partners and the opposition to resolve the crisis.

Belaid’s family and associates blame Ennahda for complicity in the assassination, and other opposition figures have claimed there is a list of potential targets.

There has been no concrete information about the identity of Belaid’s killers.

Opposition parties had hailed Mr Jebali’s initiative as a courageous decision. The year-old government has often been criticised for being unable to tackle the country’s problems, chief among them high unemployment and an economy battered by Europe’s financial crisis and too few tourists.

"It’s a recognition of the need to totally change the government, which is incapable of running the country," said Taieb Baccouche, secretary-general of the right-of-centre Nida Tunis (Tunisia’s Call) party, one of the main opposition parties. "There has to be immediate consultation between all the parties involved to avoid unilateral decisions."

The country’s largest labour union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, called for a general strike on Friday in a clear expression of their opposition to the Ennahda government. A threat to call a general strike in December was defused by negotiations.

As one of the most organised groups in society and with a left-wing leadership, UGTT, as it is known, has long been a counterbalance to Ennahda’s formidable grassroots network. The last time it called a general strike, in 1978, riots convulsed the country.

Sapa-AP