By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Thirty lawmakers from Tunisia's ruling party suspended their membership on Wednesday and threatened to resign in protest over what they called attempts by President Beji Caid Essebsi's son to control the party.
It is a further sign of infighting between two camps within Nidaa Tounes party, which is at risk of splitting up and losing its strong position in the North African state's parliament to Islamist party rival Ennahda.
Any unraveling within Nidaa Tounes could bring instability to Tunisia, which launched the Arab Spring revolts in 2011 and has since won praise for its largely peaceful transition to democracy after the overthrow of autocrat Zine Abidine Ben Ali.
Tensions between two camps of Nidaa Tounes, whose name means Call of Tunisia, spilled over into violence last week when a party meeting descended into open fighting with fists and sticks at a luxury hotel in the beach resort of Hammamet.
"We announce the suspension of our membership from today, and we will resign officially if there will be no meeting of there executive committee in one week," Wana Maklhouf, one of the protesting deputies, told reporters.
Insiders say Nidaa Tounes is now divided into two wings, one led by the Tunisian president’s son Hafhed Caid Essebsi and the other by Mohsen Marzouk, a former leftist activist and the party's secretary general.
Maklhouf said the lawmakers would resign from the parliamentary bloc and the party if the faction led by Essebsi's son refuses to respect the executive committee's legitimacy.
The camp led by the president's son is pushing for a larger role through a party restructuring. Critics say they have not recognized the executive committee.
Marzouk's wing resists what some see as an attempt at a hereditary transfer of power and return of the autocratic style of the Ben Ali era. Allies of the president dismiss claims they are looking to place his son into a position of influence.
Nidaa Tounes emerged as a political force in 2013 to lead popular protests against the Ennahda government, forcing the Islamists to step down and make way for a non-partisan transitional government and new elections.
It beat Ennahda in elections last year and went on to form a coalition with its rival. But cracks began to emerge over the party's structure, direction and appointments after Essebsi senior was elected president and stepped down as its leader.
(Editing by Patrick Markey/Mark Heinrich)