Tunisia faces confrontation as Islamists dig in against resignation calls
Tunisia’s ruling Islamists rejected on Monday a plan for them to step down pending elections, deepening a confrontation with secular opponents that threatens the most promising democratic transition to have emerged from the Arab Spring.
Tunisia has been in turmoil since an opposition leader was assassinated in July, delivering a blow to hopes for a peaceful outcome to the first pro-democracy uprising in the Arab world.
The Islamist government that replaced Tunisia’s longtime ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had on Thursday cautiously agreed to talks on stepping down, after reading opposition protests as a sign it is time to compromise instead of digging in.
On Monday it appeared to take a step back.
“We cannot accept the threat of pressure from the streets,” said Ennahda vice president Adb el Hamid Jelassi. “There should be more guarantees.”
Stubbornness was the undoing of its affiliate in Egypt – the Muslim Brotherhood which won office through the ballot box after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak but alienated the masses and the army by refusing to share power.
In contrast, Ennahda had shared power in a coalition with two secular junior partners and had sought to appease worries that it could impose an strict Islamist agenda impinging on liberal education and women’s rights.
But it has alienated many Tunisians who see it has mismanaged the economy and gone easy on hardline Islamists. Its critics say it is playing for time to shore up its position before elections and its decision on Monday bolstered that view.
“We have said that this government would not step down concretely before the completion of the constitution,” Rafik Abd Essalem, a senior Ennahda official, told reporters.
The party also said it wanted more guarantees on a date for elections before relinquishing power to an interim government.