TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's Islamist prime minister said Saturday that he will resign if his proposal to appoint a nonpolitical Cabinet by mid-week is rejected.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali first called for that change on Wednesday after Tunisia was thrown into a crisis when a prominent opposition politician was shot and killed in Tunis, touching off violent protests.
Jebali's moderate Islamist Ennahda party has already rejected his proposal. But he didn't flinch, saying in an interview with the France-24 TV channel that to change the situation government ministers must be replaced by ones without a political affiliation, notably technocrats. "I feel obliged to save my country," he said, adding that Tunisia risks a "swing into chaos."
If his new team is accepted, "I will continue to assume my role," Jebali said. If not, he will withdraw from the government.
As Jabali spoke, several thousand pro-government protesters rallied on the main avenue of the capital. But outside Tunis, groups of youths threw stones at offices of the governing party and attacked police stations in several cities in scattered unrest.
The Interior Ministry said 230 people, aged 16 to 25, have been arrested since Friday, the day Chokri Belaid was buried. The slaying of the respected opposition figure unleashed anger, and his funeral drew hundreds of thousands of mourners chanting anti-government slogans in Tunis.
Saturday was the third straight day of unrest in this North African country, which overthrew its long-ruling president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in January 2011, kicking off the Arab Spring revolutions.
With tensions mounting, Jebali said he'll appoint a new Cabinet by mid-week, saying it would be small, made up of technocrats and therefore neutral. He said that key ministries, notably Interior, Justice and Foreign Affairs, would not be spared. Those ministries are currently led by ministers from his Ennahda party.
He called the planned changes a "Cabinet reshuffle" that would avoid the complicated — and riskier — process of dissolving the government. Such a new government would need approval from Tunisia's Constituent Assembly.
But under Tunisian law, each new Cabinet minister also would still need individual approval from the Assembly — where Jebali's Ennahda party has a majority.
Belaid, a human rights activist and one of Ennahda's most outspoken critics, was shot to death in his car outside his home on Wednesday, and his killers have not been identified.
The assassination has added to the growing turmoil in Tunisia, where the transition from dictatorship to democracy has been shaken by religious divides, political wrangling and economic struggles.
Hopes had been high that Tunisia could be a model for other Arab states finding their way in the Arab Spring. In the two years since, Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, has won elections and governed in a coalition with two secular parties. However, there are growing signs of divisions within the party, made more visible after Belaid's killing.
Saturday saw pockets of pillaging and unrest, including an attack by some 80 youths armed with stones and clubs on a police station and a second security post in Zaghouan, 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Tunis, the official TAP news agency reported. To the south, in the town of Kebili, some 60 people, mainly youths, attacked the governing Ennahda party offices. The extent of that damage was not immediately known.
Meanwhile, several thousand supporters of Ennahda held a pro-government demonstration in the capital on Saturday. The protesters also insulted France, accusing the former colonial ruler of interfering in the North African country's politics.
The Ennahda party had called for the show of support for the constitutional assembly, whose work on a new constitution suffered a severe setback after Belaid's killing when the opposition withdrew its participation.
The Ennahda party said Saturday's rally also was meant to protest "French interference," a reference to French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who this week denounced Belaid's killing as an attack on "the values of Tunisia's Jasmine revolution."
The protesters denounced Valls' remarks, claiming they showed France is interfering in Tunisia's internal affairs. The demonstrators gathered in front of the National Theater, waving flags of the Ennahda party and shouting "Get out, France!"
The main thoroughfare was bustling, with cafes full and shops reopened after a general strike Friday. Police in riot armor and plainclothes officers patrolled, but the protest was peaceful — in contrast to the aftermath of Friday's funeral when police fired tear gas amid running street battles in Tunis.
Valls said on Europe 1 radio Thursday that Belaid was "one of the democrats and we must support these democrats so that the values of the Jasmine Revolution are not betrayed. There is an Islamic fascism rising everywhere, but this obscurantism must, of course, be condemned because it denies the democracy for which the Libyan, Tunisian and Egyptian people have fought."
Valls was clearly referring to Salafists, with their strict interpretation of Islam, who have come to the fore and smeared Ennahda's moderate image. At least one black Salafi flag was spotted in the sea of white Ennahda flags at Saturday's demonstration, which took place near the well-guarded French Embassy.
Fathi Rhayem, a teacher, said the demonstration "shows the Tunisian peoples' desire to show that it is sovereign, it is independent and is no longer under French protection." He said, "We want to show that we want to live on equal terms with France, as friends with reciprocal interests but not like a dominant and a dominated. The policy of submission ... is finished now."