Tunisia new gov't faces opposition from Islamists

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 25, 2015 11:07 AM

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's Islamist party Ennahda, which holds the second largest number of seats in parliament, said on Sunday it would reject a government proposed last week by Prime Minister designate Habib Essid, complicating his cabinet's ratification.

Parliament will vote this week to confirm the new government that must tackle economic reforms and Islamist militants to consolidate Tunisia's young democracy after its 2011 uprising against autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

"We decided not to approve this government because it does not represent all the political classes and it breaks with the consensual way we have worked recently," Ennahda leader Sahbi Atig told Reuters after a party meeting.

Essid has proposed a cabinet formed from the main secular Nidaa Tounes party and smaller partners, but no posts went to the two other main blocks in the parliament, Ennahda and the leftist Popular Front.

One of the most secular countries in the Arab world, Tunisia has been praised for its peaceful democratic transition in an otherwise volatile region, with free elections and a new constitution four years after Ben Ali's overthrow.

Since that uprising, Tunisian politics has often been dominated by compromises between secular and Islamist leaders to help keep democratization on track after a series of deadlocks threatened to overturn its transition.

Nidaa Tounes won a parliamentary election in October and party leader Beji Caid Essebsi, a former Ben Ali official, also won the presidency in a second-round run off.

In the 217-seat parliament, Nidaa Tounes holds 86 and have some backing from the liberal, secular UPL party, which has 16 seats. With just that alliance, they are still short of the 109 simple majority they need to ratify the cabinet.

They may look for backing from Afek Tounes party, nominal allies with eight seats, but whose delegates walked out of negotiations to form the government. Ennhada has 69 seats in the assembly and leftists Popular Front have 15 lawmakers.

Ennahda had said it was open to a unity government with Nidaa Tounes to improve stability. The new government is set to crack down on militants and tackle sensitive cuts in public spending and subsidies demanded by international lenders.

Abd el Aziz Kotti, a Nidaa Tounes lawmaker, said there were also divisions within the party between those backing the new government and those who opposed it because it would not be in a strong position.

Nidaa Tounes itself is an coalition of former Ben Ali officials, leftists and independents. Its hardliners were opposed to joining up with Ennahda, who they blame for unrest during the first Islamist-led government after 2011.

"Now it is not sure they will get the support to pass this government, it's not sure they will even reach 100 votes," said local political analyst Kahled Abid.

"Even if they pass, it may be in a weak position to take on the political, economic and security challenges."

(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Catherine Evans and Michael Urquhart)