Updated: Wed, 23 Oct 2013 16:03:26 GMT | By Agence France-Presse

Tunisia premier expected to resign as crisis talks open

Tunisia's premier was expected to announce his resignation Wednesday as the ruling Islamists and opposition begin hard-won negotiations to end months of political crisis and as anti-government protesters massed in the capital.


Tunisia premier expected to resign as crisis talks open

Tunisian opposition activists shout slogans as they hold portraits of assassinated opposition figures Mohamed al-Brahmi (left) and Chokri Belaid during a demonstration in Tunis, on October 23, 2013

Parliament speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar said he expected Prime Minister Ali Larayedh to announce his commitment to resign, allowing talks between Tunisia's bitterly divided factions to end the political paralysis gripping the country since the July murder of opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi.

"In principle, the government will announce its commitment to respecting the roadmap and its resignation within a few weeks," he said in a televised interview on Tuesday evening.

Some 60 opposition MPs who have been boycotting parliament since the crisis erupted also said they had received assurances the dialogue would begin with Larayedh announcing a "clear commitment" to step down.

Larayedh has previously said he would only step down once a new constitution has been adopted, in line with the roadmap drawn up by mediators and agreed to earlier this month by his ruling Islamist party Ennahda.

Mediators hope the long-awaited dialogue will mark a crucial step in the country's democratic transition and avert the kind of turmoil that has rocked Egypt since a popularly backed military coup removed elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July.

Tunisia nevertheless remains prey to extremist violence, with at least two policemen and two militants killed on Wednesday during a gun battle in the central Bouzid region, an interior ministry source told AFP.

In the capital, protesters gathered on central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, amid a heavy police presence, waving Tunisian flags and shouting slogans such as: "The people want the fall of the regime" and "Government of traitors, resign!"

A senior interior ministry official told AFP about 10,000 people had joined the protest.

Armoured vehicles and anti-riot police were deployed along the boulevard, which was the epicentre of the January 2011 revolution that ousted veteran dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

According to the roadmap, the talks will lead within three weeks to the formation of a new caretaker cabinet of technocrats.

Negotiators will also have one month to adopt a new constitution, electoral laws and a timetable for fresh elections. These are key milestones in a transition that has effectively been blocked by wrangling between the Islamists, their coalition allies and the opposition.

'A symbolic anniversary'

Wednesday's planned dialogue comes exactly two years after the election of the National Constituent Assembly, which followed the 2011 uprising that toppled Ben Ali and brought Ennahda to power..

The Islamists were heavily repressed under the former regime.

Since triumphing in the 2011 parliamentary elections, they have been weakened by accusations of failing to fix Tunisia's ailing economy, improve living standards and prevent attacks by Islamist militants.

After three months of political uncertainty, unkept promises and a false start to the national dialogue on October 5, the Tunisian press has grown increasingly critical of the ruling elite and sceptical of efforts to end the crisis.

"A national dialogue starts on the day of a symbolic anniversary. But it has been compromised by the prevalence of suspicion, deceitful language and ambiguity," Le Temps said in an editorial on Wednesday

For Le Quotidien, another daily, "the moment of truth is approaching with giant steps" for Tunisia, which risks turning towards "a future still more uncertain and chaotic."

The opposition has repeatedly criticised Ennahda for failing to stem a rise in jihadist violence since Ben Ali's overthrow, with extremists blamed for the murder of Brahmi and another opposition MP in February and a deadly attack on the US embassy last year.

The Islamists reject the accusations, pointing to a massive military campaign launched against jihadist groups in recent months, which saw nine suspected militants killed last week, in addition to Wednesday's fatalities.

But the defence ministry has admitted it lacks the resources to combat militant groups and has struggled to contain them.

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