September 28, 2013 8:33 pm

Tunisia’s Islamist party agrees to step down

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A woman stands next to a poster of assassinated leftist politician Chokri Belaid during a demonstration, calling for Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and his cabinet to step down, at the National Constituent Assembly in Tunis, February 11, 2013. A party led by interim President Moncef Marzouki said on Monday it had "frozen" its withdrawal from Tunisia's coalition government while talks continue on a political crisis sharpened by the killing of an opposition politician. Belaid's killing - Tunisia's first such political assassination in decades - has thrown the government and the country into turmoil, widening rifts between the dominant Islamist Ennahda party and its secular-minded foes. The words on the poster read, "The comrade martyr Chokri Beliad, Secretary-General of the Unified National Democratic Party.©Reuters

Tunisia’s dominant Islamist political party agreed to step down and hand over power to a caretaker cabinet in three weeks in a plan brokered by the country’s most powerful union, the country’s official TAP news agency reported on Saturday.

The moderate Islamist Nahda party’s decision, if it holds, paves the way for a national dialogue between major political powers within days. Under the formula accepted by Nahda, once a non-partisan cabinet is formed, parliament will be dissolved, new elections will be held and efforts to write a new constitution will be restarted.

The agreement marks another peaceful milestone in Tunisia’s troubled transition from authoritarian rule under longtime president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali toward some form of pluralism.

While violence, chaos and repression have engulfed other Arab countries that shook off or attempted to overthrow longtime rulers since 2011, Tunisia’s political groups have charted a more measured course.

Nahda’s agreement to step down follows two assassinations of prominent leftist opposition figures in seven months in Tunisia, as well as the military overthrow of the elected Islamist government in Egypt. The killings, a flailing economy and a regional political shift away from Islamists eroded confidence in the government of Nahda and two centre-left parties and bolstered the prospects of the secular opposition.

Nahda reportedly signed on to the agreement late Friday. It has been under tremendous pressure to step down since the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi in July. Opposition lawmakers walked out of the parliament after the killing, accusing the government of failing to provide security. The crisis brought the process of writing a new constitution to a halt.

Tunisia’s version of Egypt’s Tamarrod – the rebellion movement that paved the way for the Islamist government’s ousting in Cairo – launched a series of street protests and sit-ins and had called for anti-government protests on Monday. The General Union of Tunisian Labour, known by the French acronym UGTT, had also called for protests, complaining Nahda was not negotiating in good faith.

The deal also further elevates the already considerable status of the UGTT, a powerful conglomerate of labour unions that counts more than half a million members in a country of 10m. The union’s decision to side decisively with protesters in the final days Tunisia’s 2011 uprising helped seal the fate of Mr Ben Ali, who is now living in exile in Saudi Arabia.

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