After Egypt Coup, Tunisia’s Islamists Make Concessions

Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party agrees to let more secular politicians into the government to stave off further unrest.

Apparently motivated by an army coup in nearby Egypt, two leaders of Tunisia’s main political factions reportedly came to a power-sharing agreement in Paris last week to stave off further unrest.

Former prime minister Béji Caïd Essebsi, now an opposition leader, and the ruling Islamist party’s Rachid al-Ghannouchi, agreed to keep Ali Laarayedh as premier while Essebsi would succeed Moncef Marzouki as president. Two new cabinet posts are also to be added and filled by members of the opposition.

The Paris talks, sponsored by American and European diplomats, came less than three weeks after Laarayedh had rejected opposition demands to step down.

The North African country, which was the first to succumb to an “Arab Spring” uprising that toppled autocrats across the Muslim world more than two years ago, has seen waves of demonstrations since a leading secular politician was assassinated in February, prompting the prime minister at the time to resign. Another opposition leader was shot dead last month. 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.

Secular opposition parties were also emboldened by events in nearby Egypt where Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the army last month after days of mass demonstrations in the capital Cairo and other major cities. Protesters in Tunisia similarly took to the streets to force the Islamist Ennahda party out of office. It won 41 percent of the seats in the interim parliament in late 2011.

Although Ennahda claims to be moderate, opposition parties regard warily what they see as a drift toward Islamism under its leadership and worry that, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the party will seek to do away with secular laws altogether if it wins a majority in the next election.

Ghannouchi’s concessions in Paris last week might allay such fears although his meeting with a trade union leader on Monday aimed at preventing more demonstrations failed to produce progress.