Tunisian government pushes supports to rally

In response to hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters angered by the assassination of a prominent opposition leader, the ruling party in Tunisia called on supports to stage their own pro-government demonstration.

Hassene Dridi/AP
Thousands of Tunisians are gathered at el Jallez cemetery to attend the funerals of slain opposition leader Chokri Belaid, near Tunis, Friday. The ruling Ennahda party called on supporters to gather in central Tunis Saturday afternoon to show support for the constitutional assembly.

Supporters of Tunisia's ruling moderate Islamist party were urged to mass for a pro-government rally a day after the funeral for an assassinated leftist politician drew hundreds of thousands of mourners chanting anti-government slogans into the capital's heavily policed streets.

The ruling Ennahda party called supporters to gather in central Tunis Saturday afternoon to show support for the constitutional assembly whose work on a new constitution suffered a severe setback when leftist parties withdrew their participation following the killing Feb. 6 of Chokri Belaid.

Ennahda said the demonstration would also protest "French interference" after comments earlier in the week by French Foreign Minister Manuel Valls, who denounced the killing as an attack on "the values of Tunisia's Jasmine revolution."

Tunis' main thoroughfare Avenue Bourguiba was bustling on Saturday morning, with full cafes and shops reopened after a general strike a day earlier. Police in riot armor and plainclothes officers patrolled but gone were the tear gas and running street battles of a day before.

Friday's events added to the growing turmoil in Tunisia, where the transition from dictatorship to democracy has been shaken by religious divides, political wrangling and economic struggles. It's been a perilous stretch for a country many hoped would be a model for other post-revolutionary Arab states.

Belaid, who in his car outside his home, was shot dead while by an unknown assailant. Hours after his killing Wednesday, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said he would form a new, technocratic government to guide the country to elections — but Ennahda, his own party, rejected that idea soon afterward.

Late Friday, Jebali renewed his proposal for a new government, which would be a key concession to the country's opposition. "I am convinced this is the best solution for the current situation in Tunisia," Jebali said, offering to resign if the elected assembly did not accept his proposed cabinet.

Although Jebali said he was confident he could get Ennahda's support, his party's earlier rejection of the proposal exposed its own divisions between moderates and hardliners, and it remained unclear how the prime minister planned to pull enough support to his side.

Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, kicking off the Arab Spring revolutions. In the two years since, a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won elections and has governed in a coalition with two secular parties.

But the coalition's failure to stem the country's economic crisis and stop the often-violent rise of hardline Salafi Muslims have drawn fierce criticism, especially from staunch secularists such as Belaid. He had also accused Ennahda of backing some of the political violence through its own goon squads.

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