Tunis - Tunisia's Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said
on Tuesday he was ready to step aside for a caretaker cabinet to hold new
elections, but would not create a power vacuum while the country faced serious
security and economic challenges.
He said this after announcing Tunis had proof the jihadist
group Ansar al-Sharia had assassinated two secular politicians and killed eight
soldiers in recent months and so had now officially classified it "as a
Larayedh, speaking amid intense speculation about the future
of democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolts, said the drafting of
a new constitution must be finished and all parties must agree on the election
plan before he stepped down.
"We are not playing politics with the security of the
country," he told a news conference, anticipating the reaction that
promptly came from opposition critics who have long accused his Islamist
Ennahda party of being lax with Muslim radicals.
"I am ready to step down if that can resolve the
problem," he said, referring to a stalemate paralysing Tunisian politics
since the second assassination this year and the killing of eight soldiers near
the Algerian border, both in July.
"But we think a caretaker government would not be the
best solution in this critical phase on the security and economic fronts,"
he said. "The government has to continue to work in a disciplined way
until a consensus is achieved."
Tunisia, struggling to save its nascent democracy amid
popular discontent and the Egyptian army's ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood
government there, has seen mounting pressure on the unpopular Ennahda party to
step aside for new polls.
Rached Ghannouchi, the party chairperson who shapes policy
from outside the government, has accepted to negotiate with the opposition
under the mediation of the powerful UGTT trade union federation but not
revealed many details of his position.
Larayedh spelled out the government's four-point response to
opposition demands that it quit immediately. He said his cabinet should stay in
office to maintain state authority at the start of the transition.
The assembly elected in 2011 to write a new constitution
should promptly resume its work, which was suspended in late July, and finish
the document by 23 October, he said.
Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki should consult all
parties in search of a consensus on a caretaker government that can organise
and hold free elections under the surveillance of international observers, he
"The government will leave when that dialogue arrives
at a consensus," he said, without indicated how long that could take.
Larayedh said the reclassification of Ansar al-Sharia, whose
main leaders have been sought for violent acts since December, would bar other
members from holding meetings, preaching and agitating for sharia law as they
have been able to do until now.
Ansar leader Saifallah Benahssine, also known as Abu Iyadh,
is a former al-Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan being sought by Tunisian police for
allegedly inciting an attack on the US embassy in Tunis in September 2012.
Four people were killed in those disturbances, which began
as a protest over a film that mocked the Prophet Mohammad.
Ansar al-Sharia is the most radical Islamist group to emerge
in Tunisia since secular autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011
in the first of the Arab Spring revolts.
It was the prime suspect after the assassinations of leftist
secular leaders Chokri Belaid in February and Mohamed Brahmi in July, which
police said were carried out with the same gun.
It was also suspected in the killing of eight soldiers, some
of whose throats were slit, in the rugged Mount Chaambi area near the Algerian
border in July.
The assassinations and killings of the soldiers plunged
Tunisia into political turmoil late last month. The discussions and mediated
contacts among politicians in recent weeks are aimed at breaking that deadlock
and leading to new elections.
Ennahda, which governs in coalition with two smaller secular
parties, has come under growing pressure from critics for promoting an Islamist
agenda and mismanaging the economy and the security challenge from radical
Salafi and jihadist Muslims.