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Tunisia crisis talks hang in balance

‘If we manage to overcome this hurdle, the dialogue will start’

Gulf News

Tunis: The launch of a hard-won dialogue between Tunisia’s ruling Islamists and the opposition to end a protracted political crisis was in jeopardy on Saturday because of a last-minute dispute, delegates said.

The dispute emerged as delegates started to gather at the Palais des Congres for a symbolic ceremony during which the ruling moderate Islamist party Al Nahda was to declare its readiness to resign.

Al Nahda and the opposition were also due to pledge allegiance to a roadmap on Tunisia’s political future at Saturday’s session, with talks between the two sides due to begin in earnest next week.

The powerful UGGT main trade union, one of four mediators which drafted the roadmap, said Al Nahda was refusing to formally sign the text that underlines the timetable of the national dialogue.

“Consultations... are continuing. If we manage to overcome this hurdle, the dialogue will start,” UGTT spokesman Sami Tahri said.

“It goes without saying that if one accepts the roadmap then one has to sign on to it,” he added.

Saturday’s ceremony was to be attended by President Munsif Marzouki, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and parliament speaker Mustafa Bin Jaafar, as well as party leaders.

At 1000 GMT, two hours after the meeting was due to begin, there were still no delegate from Al Nahda present at the Palais des Congres.

Earlier this week, Al Nahda and the secular opposition agreed on a blueprint for talks, also drafted by the employers’ organisation Utica, the bar association and the Tunisian League for Human Rights.

The roadmap sets a three-week deadline to form a government of independents to replace the Ennahda-led government, after the launch of dialogue with opposition parties.

It also sets a four-week deadline for adopting a new electoral law and pave the way again to the much-delayed adoption of a new constitution.

But the opposition said Al Nahda refuses to sign the roadmap aimed at ending a crisis triggered by the July assassination of MP Mohammad Brahmi.

Political activity in Tunisia has ground to a halt since Brahmi’s murder, holding up the formation of stable state institutions more than two and half years since the 2011 uprising that topped longtime strongman Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali and touched off the Arab Spring.

“We don’t see why Al Nahda is refusing to sign. This is a sign of bad intentions and breeds a climate of mistrust,” said Mongi Rahoui of the opposition National Front.

“So far we have not started the dialogue and there could be a delay,” he said.

A member of Ettakatol, a centre-left party allied with Al Nahda, accused the opposition of imposing last-minute conditions, but declined to give details.

“There is a real problem of trust,” Mouldi Riahi said.

Earlier, the head of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, Abdul Satar Bin Mousa, said a signing ceremony would go ahead as planned.

Al Nahda has been accused of mismanaging the economy and failing to rein in Salafists, who are blamed for murdering Brahimi and opposition MP Shukri Belaid, another prominent secular politician killed six months earlier.

Ahead of Saturday’s holdout, analysts were voicing cautious optimism.

“The roadmap is a platform but its application word for word is less probable because of the lack of trust between the two sides,” said Slaheddine Jourchi.

Fellow analyst Sami Brahem echoed him, saying “the problem is a moral one, lack of trust between the ruling coalition and the opposition.”

On the eve of Saturday’s scheduled launch, a newspaper took at swipe at Tunisia’s political actors and expressed scepticism at the outcome.

“Tunisians are hanging on the words of political actors, protagonists in a national dialogue... Will this dialogue lead to a saving solution?” asked the francophone daily Le Quotidien.

“It’s like watching a Mexican soap opera, but without the romance,” it quipped of the two-month-long standoff.