Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Islamist Party in Tunisia Agrees to Hand over Power

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Islamist Party in Tunisia Agrees to Hand over Power

Article excerpt

The deal comes as part of negotiations to restart Tunisia's democratic transition after secular opposition groups stalled work on a new constitution.

Tunisia's governing Islamist party, Ennahda, thrust into power by the Arab Spring, has agreed to step down after months of political wrangling with a hard-bargaining opposition.

In three weeks, the Ennahda-led government is to hand over power to an independent caretaker government that will lead the country through elections in the spring. The deal comes as part of negotiations to restart Tunisia's democratic transition after secular opposition groups, protesting the assassinations of two of their politicians, stalled work on a new constitution and an election law this summer.

The two sides will enter discussions this week mediated by the Tunisian General Labor Union, the nation's largest. Its deputy secretary general, Bouali Mbarki, announced Ennahda's acceptance of the plan on Saturday.

The move comes less than three months after Egyptian military ousted the Islamist government of President Mohamed Morsi, also elected in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Ennahda officials have repeatedly made statements in recent weeks signaling the party's readiness to resign as a way to break the political impasse. The opposition, and the union, have until now pressed for more concrete action.

The union has scheduled three weeks for talks on a new government. During that time, the National Constituent Assembly, the body in charge of writing Tunisia's new constitution, is expected to ratify it and confirm appointments to the election commission, resuming work after a two-month hiatus. After that, Ennahda's coalition government will resign. The assembly, where Ennahda holds the largest bloc of seats, will remain in place to serve as a check on the new government.

Ennahda decided to step down despite resistance from some of its members, saying Tunisia's transition to democracy, which began after the president was toppled nearly two years ago, can succeed only with full political consensus.

Party members have criticized their leaders as having given away too much, Rafik Abdessalam, the former foreign minister, said at a news conference on Monday. "It is being described as the party of concessions," he said. "We are not ashamed of these concessions because they are needed by Tunisia and to secure our democratic experience so that Tunisia can reach a safe shore."

In fact, the country is so polarized, and opposition from leftist and secular parties, including the labor union, has been so dogged, that Ennahda leaders acknowledge that they are better off having a neutral government that is accepted by all sides to run the elections.

Ennahda was the largest winner in elections in October 2011, promising a model government that would blend Islamist principles with pluralism. …

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