SFAX, Tunisia (Reuters) - Thousands protested in cities across Tunisia on Thursday to call on the ruling Islamist Ennahda party to step down immediately to make way for new elections to end a stalemate with its secular opponents.
The North African nation that started the 2011 "Arab Spring" revolts has been caught in political deadlock since July after the assassination of an opposition leader.
Waving national flags and chanting "Leave Now", protesters took to the streets of six cities to demand the resignation a government critics fear wants impose a hardline Islamist agenda.
"The Islamists should understand this message, they should leave soon. We're ready to stay in the streets until they are gone," said Rafahia Loumi, taking part in a rally in Sfax, 170 miles southeast of Tunis.
After the fall of autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia's transition has been relatively peaceful compared with the ouster of an elected Islamist president by Egypt's army and the Libyan government's struggle with rival militias.
But the growing influence of Islamists, especially hardline conservatives calling for an Islamist state, has riled many in what has long been considered one of the most secular countries in the Muslim world, with strong ties to Europe.
Ennahda, itself split between moderates and hardliners, has governed in an alliance with two small secular parties and tried to appease worries it is not trying hard enough to control violent Islamist militants.
But the killing of a second opposition leader in six months by suspected Islamist gunmen sparked outrage and calls for the government's resignation.
After weeks of political wrangling, Tunisia's powerful UGTT union has come up with a proposal for the government to resign but only after three weeks of talks to decide on a date for elections and the composition of a caretaker administration.
Ennahda this week appeared to back away from that proposal, however, calling for more guarantees the new constitution will be finished and an election timetable be set before it agrees to make way for a transition administration.
(Reporting by Anis Mili in Sfax and Tarek Amara in Tunis; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)