Last updated: 22 February, 2013

Tunisian interior minister proposed as new prime minister

Ali Larayedh, the Islamist interior minister tapped to become Tunisia’s next prime minister, pledged on Friday to form a cabinet representing all Tunisian men and women and upholding gender equality.

“We are going to enter the phase of forming a new government that will be for all Tunisian men and women, taking into account the fact that men and women have equal rights and responsibilities,” said Larayedh on his promotion from interior minister.

President Moncef Marzouki tasked Larayedh with forming a new government after fellow Islamist Hamadi Jebali resigned in the face of a political crisis.

Larayedh “will have 15 days to form a new government and present its plan” to the head of state, Marzouki’s spokesman said, adding that the president urged him to do so “as quickly as possible because the country cannot wait any longer.”

The ruling Islamist party Ennahda had put forward Larayedh’s name after its consultative council selected him on Thursday night.

Ennahda, leading a coalition, has promised to build as broadly based a government as possible. And with its 89 MPs, it should have no difficulty securing the 109 votes needed for a majority.

Larayedh, 57, who was imprisoned and tortured under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was appointed interior minister after Ennahda’s triumph in October 2011 polls that followed the dictator’s ouster earlier that year.

A moderate member of the Islamist party, he is seen as a man of dialogue.

Gender equality, which he referred to in his first public speech since being nominated as prime minister designate, has become a sensitive issue in the once proudly secular nation.

Ennahda has often been accused of seeking to roll back women’s rights and sparked protests last year when it proposed an article in the constitution, later dropped, referring to “complementarity” between the sexes, rather than equality.

Jebali resigned on Tuesday after his plan to form a non-partisan government, announced in the wake of public outrage over the murder of leftist politician and Islamist critic Chokri Belaid, was rejected by Ennahda, his own party.

The assassination plunged Tunisia into its worst political crisis since Ben Ali’s ouster, heightening political tensions and laying bare Ennahda’s divisions between moderates and hardliners.

Liberals and secularists have accused Ennahda of failing to rein in religious extremists threatening Tunisia’s stability, and Belaid’s family directly accused the party of orchestrating his murder, a charge it strongly denied.

Larayedh announced on Thursday there had been arrests in the murder inquiry, though he gave no further details, and said the killer had not yet been identified.

The killing sparked deadly street protests and strikes, which Jebali attempted to defuse by announcing plans for a non-partisan cabinet of technocrats to lead Tunisia into early elections.

Tunisia is also deadlocked over the drafting of a constitution, with parliament divided over the nature of the country’s future political system 15 months after it was elected and more than two years after the revolution.

Jebali’s plans, while largely supported by the opposition, had been bitterly opposed by Ennahda hardliners, represented by its veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi, who refuse to give up key portfolios and insist on the party’s electoral supremacy.

Since the revolution, Tunisia has also been rocked by violence blamed on radical Salafists and social unrest over the government’s failure to improve poor living conditions.

Several hundred Salafists demonstrated on Friday in Sidi Bouzid in protest at a clash between jihadists and security forces on Thursday in the town of central-western Tunisia.

“Larayedh, you are a coward. The houses of God are not for being trampled on,” they shouted, waving the black flag of their movement. “Larayedh, agent of the Americans.”

Two Tunisian police were reportedly wounded in an exchange of gunfire with presumed Salafists when security forces cornered four armed men in a mosque in the centre of the town, cradle of the 2011 uprising.