Last updated: 9 January, 2014

Tunisia Islamist PM set to step down as unrest mounts

Tunisia’s Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh resigned on Thursday as part of a plan to end months of political deadlock which has fuelled mounting social unrest.

His resignation sees the departure of Tunisia’s first democratically elected government, which came to power after veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings almost three years ago.

“We took on our responsibilities in very difficult conditions. We have worked for the benefit of our country and we respect our commitments,” Larayedh said on national television, before announcing his resignation at a news conference.

His stepping down comes as part of a blueprint, drawn up by mediators, to put the democratic transition back on track after the assassination of opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi by suspected Islamist militants last year.

Under the plan, he is to be replaced within 15 days by premier designate Mehdi Jomaa at the head of a government of technocrats that will lead the country to fresh elections this year under a new constitution.

“The president has charged me with supervising the running of the country until the new government of Mehdi Jomaa is formed,” Larayedh said.

Larayedh’s Islamist Ennahda party had been under mounting pressure to relinquish the grip on power it won after the uprising in elections to a constituent assembly, as the economy has stagnated and social unrest has intensified.

The country has witnessed a number of sometimes violent protests since the start of the week at the government’s failure to improve living conditions.

The unrest comes against a backdrop of turmoil in fellow Arab Spring country Egypt, where elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the army last July after a single year in power, adding to the pressure on Ennahda.

The formation late Wednesday of an independent authority to oversee fresh elections, which the Islamists had set as a condition for stepping down, removed the last hurdle to Larayedh’s resignation, according to the powerful UGTT trade union confederation, the main mediator in the crisis.

The approval of a new constitution, which Ennahda had also demanded in return for handing over power, is on track to meet an agreed deadline of January 14, the uprising’s third anniversary, with the assembly voting on it intensively article by article.

The new charter had been delayed for months by the withdrawal of opposition assembly members in protest at Brahmi’s killing in July.

But their return has seen compromises swiftly reached on many of the most divisive provisions, including gender equality and the role of Islam.

On Thursday, the constituent assembly agreed to an article setting a goal of 50-50 representation between the sexes in all elected bodies, an exceptional move for the Arab world but one in keeping with the secularism that Tunisia adopted at independence which has given its women by far the most extensive rights in the region.

Mounting social unrest

The quickening political reconciliation moves come against a backdrop of intensifying social unrest, which was a key motor of the 2011 uprising.

Central Tunisia in particular, where a young street vendor sparked the uprising by setting himself on fire in protest at his impoverished circumstances, has seen a spate of violent protests in recent days.

Speaking before his resignation, Larayedh announced the suspension of a new vehicle tax, which came into force this year and has triggered nationwide protests.

“To not give any chance to terrorism and to criminal groups, after consultations with the ministries, we have decided to suspend the implementation of the transport taxes,” he said.

In the central town of Kasserine, hundreds of demonstrators clashed throughout the afternoon with police and troops, some of them in armoured cars, an AFP correspondent reported.

A police source said eight officers were wounded.

Late on Wednesday, several hundred protesters went on the rampage in the nearby town of Feriana, attacking a tax office, a police post, a bank and a municipal building, residents and a policeman told AFP.

Youths also torched a police station during the night in the central town of Meknassy, local UGTT representative Zouheir Khaskhoussi said.

The UGTT had called a general strike in Kasserine on Wednesday to protest at the persistent economic crisis gripping the town.

Nationwide, growth was less than 3.0 percent last year, insufficient to bring down the country’s unemployment rate, which exceeds 30 percent among school leavers.