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Islamists rally in Tunis as PM threatens to resign

By Antoine Lambroschini

TUNIS, Tunisia (AFP) - Thousands of backers of Tunisia's ruling Islamists rallied in the capital Saturday to denounce Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali's plan to form a new government of technocrats amid deepening political uncertainty.

Jebali, who is seen as a moderate, said he would step down if he failed to form a new government within days as more than 3,000 supporters of his Ennahda party took to the streets to oppose his plans.

The prime minister stated his determination to replace the existing cabinet, including the three key ministries held by the Islamist party, in a television interview late Saturday that threw down the gauntlet to opponents within his own party.

"All the ministries will be independent, including the interior, justice and foreign affairs ministries," Jebali told France 24, when asked by the satellite news channel about the plan.

Ennahda supporters rallied in Tunis to press their demands that the Islamist-dominated cabinet remain untouched, deepening a pervasive sense of crisis after days of street clashes between opposition supporters and police following the murder of leading government critic Chokri Belaid,

"The people want to protect the legitimacy of the ballot," they shouted as they gathered on the Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the epicentre of the 2011 revolution that toppled former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Belaid, who accused the Islamist party of stealing the revolution, was gunned down outside his home on Wednesday morning, sparking days of unrest as his supporters and family openly blamed Ennahda for eliminating him.

Saturday's protest was on a far smaller scale than anti-government rallies held in the wake of Belaid's murder.

Ennahda supporters also chanted anti-French slogans in response to Paris' Interior Minister Manuel Valls's condemnation of "Islamist fascism" in Tunisia.

Tensions between liberals and Islamists have been simmering for months over the future direction of the once proudly secular Muslim nation.

Their divisions within the national assembly have blocked progress on the drafting of a new constitution.

But the crisis has also laid bare divisions within the party itself, and inflamed anti-Islamist sentiment.

Jebali first announced his plans to form a non-political government of technocrats in the immediate aftermath of Belaid's murder.

"I will present the team no later than the middle of next week," he told Tunisian media on Saturday.

"If it is accepted... I will continue to carry out my duties as head of the government. Otherwise, I will ask the president of the republic to find another candidate to form a new government."

Saturday's protest was called to "defend the legitimacy of the national constituent assembly," in which the Ennahda-dominated coalition holds a majority, but whose support Jebali said he did not need to form a new cabinet.

His own parliamentary bloc have rejected the plan, with Sahbi Atig, Ennahda's leader in the national assembly, criticising Jebali for not consulting his party.

Fugitive Salafist leader Abu Iyadh, who heads the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia and is accused of organising a deadly attack on the US embassy last year, warned Ennahda that compromising with secular parties amounted to "political suicide."

The Tunisian League for Defence of Human Rights said threats and intimidation of the kind that Belaid's family had long complained were continuing under the Ennahda-led government, and called for politicians to be protected.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets on Friday for Belaid's funeral, which turned into a massive anti-Islamist rally, while clashes between police and protesters led to 132 arrests, the interior ministry said.

On Friday night, protesters torched Ennahda's headquarters in Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of the uprising just over two years ago, as well as the office of an Islamist NGO in Souk Jedid, 17 kilometres (11 miles) away.

The left-wing leader's funeral concided with a widely-observed general strike called by the powerful 500,000-strong General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). The strike was believed to be the biggest since January 14, 2011 -- the day Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, where he remains in exile.

The greatest sin a man can ever commit in life is to take God away from one's life.
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