Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party Ennahda and the opposition have agreed to extend their negotiations after failing to choose a new prime minister to steer the country out of its political crisis.
“We have not reached a consensus on the prime minister… We are going to continue discussions for another day or two in order to arrive at a consensus,” said senior Ennahda official Ameur Larayedh, after around 12 hours of talks on Saturday.
According to politicians contacted by AFP, the negotiators could not decide between Mohamed Ennaceur, 79, supported by the opposition, and Ahmed Mestiri, 88, backed by Ennahda and its allies.
Both are well respected and served under the late Habib Bourguiba, who led the fight for Tunisia’s independence from its French colonial masters and served as its first president (1957-1987).
Tensions have gripped Tunisia since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987. The current crisis was triggered by the murder this year of two opposition politicians by suspected Islamist radicals.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party whose resignation has been demanded by the opposition, has pledged to step down and allow the creation of a government of independents as part of a roadmap to resolve the crisis.
After months of stalling, the Islamist-led government opened talks with the opposition on October 25 to form the new government, agree on a much-delayed constitution and prepare for elections.
The roadmap to resolve the crisis was drafted by mediators including the powerful UGTT trade union.
The negotiating committee comprising the head of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), Mustapha Ben Jaafar, Ennahda chief Rached Ghannouchi and five opposition figures met on Saturday with UGTT secretary general Housine Abassi.
“We consider Mestiri to be the man of the moment,” said Ennahda spokesman Zied Laadhari. “He is equally distant from everyone.”
But Mourad Amdouni, a representative for a coalition of leftist parties, said Mestiri “is not (physically) up to fulfilling the mission of prime minister”.
Mestiri held several key portfolios in successive governments under Bourguiba — finance, justice, defence and interior — while Ennaceur is an expert on social affairs.
Whoever is tapped will have two weeks to form a government of independents to prepare for elections.
Larayedh has pledged to step down so long as the timetable is respected.
The ANC, which finally met in plenary session on Saturday to discuss steps to speed up procedures after several delays, has until the end of November to draw up a new constitution and an electoral law.
The electoral timetable was set back after a court ruled that the selection by the ANC of an electoral commission, which had been slated for Saturday, must be postponed until a law creating it is passed.
But the office of President Moncef Marzouki announced on Saturday morning that he had promulgated the law.
It was in July that opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi was gunned down outside his house, six months after the murder of another opposition politician.
Both killings were blamed on suspected jihadists, suppressed under the regime of Ben Ali and now accused of a wave of violence that has hit the country since his ouster.
Militant Islamists have been blamed for the unrest, including a deadly attack last year on the US embassy in Tunis and ambushes targeting security forces in the rugged border region with Algeria.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a beach in the popular tourist resort of Sousse, and minutes later security forces foiled another attack in nearby Monastir.
Tunisia has also been reeling from economic hardship — a driving force behind the 2011 uprising — with inflation running at more than six percent, a weak dinar and steep budget deficit of around 7.4 percent of gross domestic product.