Tunisia's President Munsif Al Marzouqi (C), Constituent Assembly's President Mustafa Bin Jaafar (L) and Prime Minister Ali Larayedh listen during the National Conference for Dialogue, which aims to pave the way for the formation of a transitional government, in Tunis October 5. REUTERS Image Credit: REUTERS

Tunis: Tunisia’s political rivals agreed Saturday on a timetable for the unpopular Islamist-led ruling coalition to quit and be replaced by a government of independents, aiming to end a festering political crisis.

The Islamist Al Nahda party and opposition groups in the country that gave birth to the Arab Spring signed a roadmap aimed at creating a new government within three weeks.

Saturday’s deal, signed in the presence of politicians and media, was brokered to end a simmering two-month crisis sparked by the assassination in July of opposition MP Mohammad Brahmi.

The document, drawn up by four mediators, foresees the nomination of an independent prime minister by the end of next week, who would then have two weeks to form a cabinet.

It says that after the first day of national dialogue, “the government will resign with a delay not exceeding three weeks”.

One of the leaders of Al Nahda, Abdul Hamid Jlassi, told AFP the national dialogue proper is not expected to start on Monday, however.

“First there will be preparatory meetings, and the date of the government’s resignation will not be determined until the start of the real national dialogue,” he said.

“Al Nahda’s signature today is a major concession made in the interests of the country,” he added.

Saturday’s ceremony got under way after a delay of several hours that underscored the mutual distrust between the rival camps.

“I want to thank you for joining this dialogue because you are opening the door of hope for Tunisians,” said Hussain Abassi, whose UGTT trade union confederation was the lead mediator behind the roadmap.

Delegates at the Palais des Congres said the launch of the hard-won dialogue with a symbolic ceremony had earlier been jeopardised by a last-minute dispute.

The UGTT said Al Nahda had initially refused to formally sign the text that underlines the timetable of the national dialogue.

It was not immediately clear how it was resolved, but Al Nahda leader Rashid Gannouchi on Twitter blamed the almost four-hour delay on “last-minute blackmail” by the opposition.

Al Nahda eventually signed the agreement, but its secular ally, the Congress for the Republic party of President Munsif Al Marzouqi, refused to do so.

Prolonged political disputes

By signing the roadmap, the Al Nahda-led coalition, which has been rocked by the murder of two political opponents, economic woes and prolonged political disputes, has agreed to step down two years after winning a general election.

Its victory at the polls on October 23, 2011, was the first free vote in Tunisian history, and followed the overthrow of long-ruling strongman Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali in the first revolt of the Arab Spring.

Saturday’s roadmap also foresees, within the next four weeks and after a national dialogue across the political spectrum, the adoption of a constitution and a timetable for elections.

The ceremony was attended by Al Marzouqi, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and parliament speaker Mustafa Bin Jaafar, as well as party leaders.

“We will not disappoint the Tunisian people nor the dialogue itself,” Larayedh told the gathering.

Bin Jaafar, a secular ally of the Islamists, said in a speech that “failure would be a sin we would have to answer for.”

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

Political activity had ground to a halt since Brahmi’s murder, holding up the formation of stable state institutions more than two and half years after the 2011 uprising.

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

“There is a real problem of trust,” Mouldi Riahi told AFP before the dialogue finally opened.

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

Analysts had voiced cautious optimism ahead of the dialogue.

“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 Salah Al Deen Jourshi.

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

On Friday, a newspaper took a sceptical swipe at the country’s politicians.

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

“It’s like watching a Mexican soap opera, but without the romance.”