TUNIS,Â Aug 06, 2013Â (AFP)
Tunisia’s political crisis deepenedÂ TuesdayÂ asÂ the elected National Constituent Assembly suspended its work until theÂ government and opposition open negotiations on a showdown sparked by anÂ opposition figure’s assassination.
The latest twist came as hundreds of demonstrators started to gatherÂ outside the assembly building for a mass rally called by the opposition aimedÂ at pressuring the government to step down.
“I assume my responsibility as president of the ANC (assembly) and suspendÂ its work until the start of a dialogue, in the service of Tunisia,” itsÂ speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar announced on state television, meeting a keyÂ demand of the protesters.
The secular ally of the governing coalition led by the moderate IslamicÂ movement Ennahda was referring to the crisis sparked by the July 25 murder ofÂ Mohamed Brahmi that has already prompted many opposition members to boycottÂ the ANC.
The opposition refuses to hold talks with the government unless it stepsÂ down while Ennahda rules out any dialogue conditional on its ouster.
In the face of terror threats facing Tunisia, Ben Jaafar condemned theÂ failure of the political leadership to strike a compromise.
“Despite the gravity of the situation and instead of working towards unity,Â unfortunately party leaders have gone in the opposite direction, towardsÂ division, by mobilising” street protests, he said.
Since the ANC was elected in October 2001, political leaders have failed toÂ find a consensus on a new constitution following that year’s revolution whichÂ ousted longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The suspension of the assembly’s work puts into question Prime Minister AliÂ Larayedh’s targets of the ANC adopting a new constitution and electoral law byÂ October 23Â to allow for aÂ December 17Â election.
Ennahda chief Rached Ghannouchi, quoted in La Presse newspaperÂ on Tuesday,Â said the government will not step down under pressure from the street, whileÂ Larayedh charged that demonstrators were hampering efforts by security forcesÂ to root out gunmen linked to Al-Qaeda.
“There are excessive demands at protests for the dissolution of the electedÂ government,” Ghannouchi told La Presse. “In democratic regimes, protests don’tÂ change governments; it’s under dictatorial regimes that a demonstration isÂ able to topple a regime.”
A mixed bag of opposition parties, ranging from extreme left toÂ centre-right, called for the protest in Tunis due to start at 2000 GMT to markÂ six months since another opposition politician, Chokri Belaid, was gunned downÂ outside his home.
Government detractors say the Ennahda-led cabinet has failed to rein inÂ radical Islamists blamed for both Belaid’s murder and the gunning down of MPÂ Brahmi.
Tunisia has been rocked by anti-government protests since the MP’s killing,Â and protesters have clashed with police, who have used tear gas to disperseÂ them.
The powerful, half-million strong Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), hasÂ issued a call for its members to joinÂ TuesdayÂ night’s demonstration.
The NCA earlier the same day gathered to discuss the “terrorist crisis” asÂ security forces pressed on with a vast operation to hunt down militants holedÂ up in the rugged Mount Chaambi region near the Algerian border.
Speaking to the assembly, the premier had harsh words for demonstrators,Â saying their activities meant security forces “are obliged to be in theÂ streets when they should be participating in the battle against terrorism.”
Defence Minister Rachid Sabbagh told the NCA that the armies of Tunisia andÂ Algeria would “reinforce their cooperation, particularly to arrest the ChaambiÂ terrorists.”
“We will continue our operations until all the terrorists have been killedÂ or arrested.”
Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, meanwhile, told a joint newsÂ conference in Algiers with his Tunisian counterpart Othmane Jarandi that anyÂ direct military intervention in its neighour was a “red line”.
“There are red lines that can not be considered,” he said, whileÂ acknowledging that “operational measures (in security cooperation) are beingÂ adapted to suit the nature and scale of the risk which has emerged.”
Back in Tunis, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said around 40 peopleÂ suspected of belonging to the group had been arrested since December and thatÂ another 58 were being sought.
The military has been hunting the militants since then, and stepped up itsÂ offensive after eight soldiers were killed in a July 29 ambush.
Ghannouchi also dismissed critics who say authorities are being soft onÂ radical Islamists, who have grown in influence since the popular uprising thatÂ toppled Ben Ali two years ago. “There are 500 to 600 terrorist suspectsÂ imprisoned in jails,” he said.
Larayedh has also ruled out the government’s resignation, offering insteadÂ to broaden the coalition.
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