By Tarek Amara and Tom Heneghan
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's governing Islamists edged closer to negotiations with secular opponents on Thursday by agreeing in principle to a plan for a transition toward new elections proposed by the powerful trade unions.
The birthplace of the Arab Spring revolts, Tunisia is struggling to defend its nascent democracy against political polarization and popular discontent, especially after Egypt's army ousted another elected Islamist leader, Mohamed Mursi.
Rached Ghannouchi, chairman of the Islamist Ennahda party, said negotiations would quickly resolve the standoff that has paralyzed Tunisian politics for almost a month and led to major protests and calls for the government to resign.
"We will get out of this crisis very soon," Ghannouchi told journalists after meeting UGTT Secretary General Hussein Abassi. "We accept the UGTT initiative in principle to begin the dialogue" with the opposition.
Opposition leaders accused Ghannouchi of trying to buy time and repeated their demand that Ennahda give up power. The party later said in a communiqué it would stay on until the planned dialogue reaches a consensus on holding free and fair elections.
"Ennahda is looking for an honorable exit from the crisis to avoid a fate like that of the Islamists in Egypt," said political analyst Noureddine Mbarki. "This decision comes after many international interventions, especially from Europe."
Both the Islamists and the opposition agree on the need for new voting once work on a long-delayed new constitution is completed, which could happen in the next few months. But the opposition does not trust Ennahda to hold a free and fair vote.
Ennahda, which governs in coalition with two smaller secular parties, is under increasing pressure from the opposition over accusations that is imposing an Islamist agenda, failing to deal with violent Salafi Islamists and mismanaging the economy.
SACRIFICES FROM ENNAHDA
The UGTT trade union federation, which is mediating between Ennahda and its critics, has proposed the government step down and let a neutral interim cabinet prepare new elections. Ennahda had rejected this in the past but changed course this week.
"The situation in the country demands sacrifices from Ennahda," UGTT chief Abassi said after the meeting, which came a day after he consulted with opposition parties on their stand.
"Ghannouchi has accepted the UGTT's initiative but he has a few conditions and propositions for starting the dialogue which we will present to the opposition," he said.
"We must find a way out of this crisis quickly because the country cannot wait. This could increase our economic difficulties," Abassi said.
Tunisia voted on October 23, 2011 for a constituent assembly which was to write a new constitution within a year, a deadline it failed to keep because of protracted wrangling between the Islamists and the secular opposition parties.
Four months were spent on debate just about whether to mention sharia, the Islamic legal and moral code, in the constitution. Ennahda finally agreed to leave it out.
SPECTRE OF EGYPT'S VIOLENCE
Critics say that although it was only supposed to be a transitional cabinet, the Ennahda-led body behaved as if it were a fully elected government and quickly filled many jobs in the national and local administration with Islamists.
Ennahda's turnabout came after the second killing of a leftist leader by suspected Islamist radicals in late July and the specter of the violence and bloodshed following the end of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.
Although talk of a possible coup made the rounds in Tunis last month, the Tunisian army - unlike its Egyptian counterpart - has no tradition of political intervention.
The million-strong UGTT (Tunisian General Labour Union) undertook its mediation effort because it is the only national organization that could press the parties towards a consensus.
(Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Mark Heinrich)