Tunisia's biggest union tells Islamist-led government to quit

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 30, 2013 11:47 AM
Tunisia's biggest union tells Islamist-led government to quit

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's largest labor union called on Tuesday for the dissolution of the Islamist-led government and the interior minister offered to resign as a political crisis deepened.

Softening its rejection of demands for the government's departure, the Islamist Ennahda party said it was ready for a new government, but opposed any move to disband an elected body that has almost completed work on a new draft constitution.

"We are open to all proposals to reach an agreement, including a salvation or unity government," Ennahda official Ameur Larayedh told Reuters. "But we will not accept dissolving the Constituent Assembly. This is a red line."

Protests against the moderate Islamist Ennahda party surged after last week's killing of a leftist politician, the second to be slain in six months, disrupting a tense political transition that began when Tunisians toppled an autocratic leader in 2011.

While politicians feud, the army is struggling to contain Islamist militants, who killed eight soldiers on Monday in a mountainous region near the Algerian border in one of the bloodiest attacks on Tunisian troops in decades.

The powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which has about 600,000 members in the public and private sectors, said a technocratic government should replace the one led by Ennahda.

"We consider this government incapable of continuing its work," Hussein Abbassi, head of the UGTT, said in a statement.

While endorsing demands for the government to fall, the UGTT has also opposed dissolving the assembly - a measure which would throw Tunisia's fragile transition process into limbo.

COALITION IN DISARRAY

"We propose maintaining the Constituent Assembly but ... with a time-frame to speed up completion of its work," said Abbassi, general secretary of the UGTT, which brought much of the country to a halt with a one-day strike on Friday.

The secular opposition, energized by the overthrow of Egypt's freely elected Islamist president this month, has stepped up pressure on the Ennahda-led government to quit.

Some opposition leaders were dissatisfied with Ennahda's offer to form a new government but keep the Assembly in place.

"The street wants to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, which is already dying politically and ethically. Its legitimacy is over," said Mongi Rahoui, a leader in the Popular Front.

Opposition leaders criticize the Assembly for far exceeding the one-year deadline it set in December 2011 to complete its tasks, which include drafting a constitution.

Rahoui also said Ennahda must relinquish the post of prime minister in any deal on a new government.

The ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Ali Larayedh has begun to fray in the last few days as political turmoil and street unrest grip the North African nation of 11 million.

Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou, a judge and political independent from the al-Qasreen area near where the troops were ambushed by militants, said he was keen to stand down.

"I am ready to resign," he told the local Mosaique radio station. "A salvation government or national unity government must be formed to get Tunisia out of this bottleneck."

On Monday, the secular Ettakatol party threatened to withdraw from the ruling coalition unless a unity government was formed to defuse widespread and often violent protests.

Ennahda, which won elections after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in the first of a series of Arab uprisings, has resisted demands to give up power.

The opposition, angered by the assassination of leftist leaders Chokri Belaid in February and Mohamed Brahmi on Thursday, has rejected several concessions and power-sharing proposals from the Ennahda-led coalition in the last few days.

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Alistair Lyon)