Tunisia’s Islamists Reject Opposition Demands to Step Down

Emboldened by events in Egypt, Tunisia’s opposition seeks to force the Islamists out of office.

Tunisia’s Islamist prime minister Ali Laarayedh on Monday rejected opposition demands to step down and vowed to complete its democratic transition with elections due in December.

Secular opposition parties, emboldened by the military’s intervention in nearby Egypt, where Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was deposed early this month, are not impressed by the government’s attempts at reconciliation, calling on both Laarayedh’s cabinet and the interim parliament to resign.

Seventy lawmakers have already left the Constituent Assembly which has been in session since November 2011 and is tasked to write a new constitution by August. The body was formed less than a year after Tunisia’s former president and strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of office in the first of what were described as “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Muslim world.

Laarayedh’s Ennahda party is the largest in the interim parliament with 41 percent of the seats. It is in coalition with the social democratic Ettakatol which has threatened to pull out of the government unless secular demands are met.

The ruling Islamist and secular parties defused a political crisis as recently as May when they settled months of bickering about Tunisia’s future political system. Ennahda favored a parliamentary structure. Smaller parties demanded a powerful presidency to prevent the Islamists from dominating the government. A “mixed” system was supposed to be erected, the outlines of which remain unclear.

Ennahda has faced mounting opposition since the death of a leading secular politician in February forced then premier Hamadi Jebali to step down in favor of Laarayedh. Another opposition leader was shot dead last week. After his funeral, police had to use tear gas to disperse opponents and supporters of the government who had gathered outside parliament in central Tunis.

Although Ennahda claims to be moderate, opposition parties regard warily what they consider a drift toward Islamism under the party’s stewardship and worry that, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamists will seek to do away with secular laws altogether if they win a majority in the next election.

While 98 percent of Tunisians is Muslim, Ben Ali’s regime banned headscarfs from public spaces, closed mosques and persecuted religious activists, including Ennahda members, as “terrorists.” Since his downfall, attendance at prayer services has increased as has the separation of boys and girls at religious schools.

The main worries for most Tunisians are still high food and fuel prices as well as high unemployment. Whereas joblessness stood at 13 percent in 2010, high enough to fuel a revolution the following year, it rose to almost 19 percent after Ben Ali’s ouster and averaged some 17 percent through last year. Industrial action, once outlawed, regularly disrupts production and public services. Foreign investment and tourism have dwindled and are unlikely to increase until the country seems more stable.