By Tarek Amara and Tom Heneghan
(Reuters) - Step by step, the once-shunned officials of Tunisia's old order have returned to the political scene and are turning up the pressure on the governing Islamist party Ennahda to make way for them.
These so-called "remnants" from Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's rule were swept aside by the first of the "Arab Spring" revolts in January 2011 and trounced in voting for a constituent assembly later that year. The assembly has considered banning them from politics completely.
But two murders of leftist leaders this year by suspected radical Salafis and mounting dissatisfaction with Ennahda's Islamist agenda have plunged Tunisian politics into turmoil, prompting the assembly to suspend its work.
Since the second assassination in late July, ex-officials regrouped in new political parties have spoken out more openly and helped organize and fill the ranks of mass rallies to demand Ennahda step aside and allow new elections.
It now looks likely that the proposed ban, which would shut about 30,000 "remnants" out of politics, will get lost in the political tumult and the opposition parties will emerge as a potentially strong challenger to Ennahda in the next election.
"The ex-officials want to return under another flag," said Tunis University professor Sami Brahmi, referring to about half a dozen parties where they are active. "They're the ones who are benefitting the most from what is happening."
One major beneficiary is Beji Caid Essebsi, who was briefly parliament speaker under the autocrat Ben Ali. Opinion polls give his party some 30 percent support, about equal with the Islamists.
His pivotal role in solving Tunisia's crisis was confirmed last week when Ennahda chairman Rached Ghannouchi made a secret trip to Paris, where Essebsi was on a visit, to hold his first talks with the man the Islamists had until then shunned.
Another beneficiary is Kamel Morjane, defense and then foreign minister from 2005 until 2011. His party, smaller than Essebsi's, is the most active in defending former officials of Ben Ali's now banned Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).
PRAGMATIC SECULAR MODERNISERS
The returning former officials are mostly pragmatic secular modernizers who worked as technocrats under Ben Ali without being directly tainted by his human rights violations.
Their parties also have close ties to the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), another strong critic of Ennahda.
Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes, for example, includes former members of Ben Ali's RCD and leading businessmen from pre-revolution days, as well as progressive modernizers and trade unionists.
Its platform on its website stresses democracy, jobs, social welfare and economic progress, goals the Islamists' critics say Ennahda has failed to reach. It makes no mention of Islam.
Ennahda used to pass them off as a copy-paste of the old elites and not worth talking to. That no longer applies now that Tunis newspapers all ran a photograph on Monday showing Essebsi and Ghannouchi stiffly smiling for the cameras in Paris.
The picture was published alongside articles reporting that Ennahda, which until then had refused to consider their demands, was now ready to meet its critics without preconditions.
Parties defending the former officials have also formed wider tactical anti-Islamist "fronts" with left-wingers who struggled against Ben Ali.
Jilani Hamammi of the Workers Party, the former underground communist party, saw no problem working with "remnants" in a broad anti-Ennahda "Salvation Front".
"We are ready to work with anyone who can stop this religious dictatorship," he said.
The RCD was dissolved after Ben Ali was ousted in 2011 and the leading parties of the ex-officials, such as Essebsi's Nida Tounes (Call of Tunisia) or Morjane's Initiative, sprang up. Ennahda was banned under Ben Ali and legalized after he fell.
PROUD OF HIS PAST
In another come-back twist, Hamed Karoui, Ben Ali's prime minister from 1989 to 1999, was recently called in by President Moncef Marzouki to hear his views on solving the crisis.
Karoui has been contacting fellow "Destourians", followers of the secular modernizer Habib Bourguiba, who led Tunisia to independence from France in 1956 and ruled until 1987.
Mohamed Jegham, head of the Al Watan (The Nation) party and one of many "remnants" in it, made no apologies for his past.
"I worked with Ben Ali for 13 of the 23 years he was in power. I am proud of the contribution I made to the construction of this country," said Jegham, who was defense and foreign minister in the 1990s and briefly commerce minister in 2011.
Noting the development of infrastructure, industry and education before 2011, he asked: "Who did all this? It was us."
Jegham, whose party has linked up with others in the Destourian Front, said the anti-Islamists learned an important lesson in 2011. "There were about 125 parties running in that election and they split the vote. We cannot continue like that."
(Writing by Tom Heneghan, editing by Elizabeth Piper)