Tunisia’s Islamists to Resign, Pave Way for New Elections

The ruling Islamists agrees to form a caretaker government with seculars before elections are called.

Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party agreed on Saturday to step down and form a caretaker government with opposition secularists before new elections are called.

Emboldened by the Egyptian military’s removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power, Tunisia’s seculars called on Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh Ennahda party to give up power in July. Their demands came after months of bickering about the North African country’s future political system. Ennahda favored a parliamentary structure while smaller parties preferred a powerful presidency to prevent the Islamists from dominating the government. The two sides agreed to a “mixed” system in May, the outlines of which remain unclear.

The country that started the “Arab Spring” uprisings which 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 two months ago. 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. Protests have continued since.

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.

Opponents also accuse the ruling party of mismanaging the economy. Whereas joblessness stood at 13 percent in 2010, high enough to fuel a revolution the following year, it rose to almost 19 percent after the country’s longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country 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.