TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's prime minister responded to mounting opposition demands to dissolve the government with a defiant speech Monday, promising to complete the country's democratic transition with a new constitution by August and elections in December.
But the assassination of two opposition legislators over the last six months has plunged Tunisia — the birthplace of the Arab Spring — into a crisis involving anti-government protests, Monday's resignation of a Cabinet minister, and a legislative walkout by dozens of lawmakers.
Many had hoped that Tunisia would serve as a model for democratic transformations for North Africa and the Middle East, but its struggle comes as Egypt descends into chaos and Syria is enmeshed in a civil war.
On Thursday, left-wing Tunisian politician Mohammed Brahmi was assassinated in Tunis, shot 14 times outside his home in front of his family. That followed the killing of another left-wing opposition legislator, Chokri Belaid, in February.
The opposition has seized on these assassinations as evidence of the Islamist-led government's failure to manage the political transition and ensure security and said the government and the constitutional assembly elected in 2011 should now be dissolved.
After Brahmi's funeral on Saturday, hundreds of people demonstrated in front of the assembly. The crowd swelled to 25,000 on Sunday night, according to the Interior Ministry, and was divided between pro- and anti-government groups.
Police attempted to keep the rival demonstrations separate and finally cleared the area early Monday with widespread use of tear gas.
Education Minister Salem Labiadh submitted his resignation on Monday. And dozens of opposition members in Tunisia's 217-seat assembly, as well as a few from the ruling coalition, have announced their withdrawal from the body in effort to paralyze it. For the legislature to function, two-thirds of its members must be present, and opposition politicians say they nearly have the 73 seats needed.
But Prime Minister Ali Larayedh refused to back down on Monday.
In a forceful televised speech, during which often banged on a podium, he presented a road map for completing the long drawn out democratic transition with a new constitution by the end of August and the passage of the needed election laws by Oct. 23 — the anniversary of the date in 2011 that brought the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party to power.
He said an election for a new legislative body would be held on Dec. 17, the third anniversary of the self-immolation of itinerant fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi that sparked the uprising that overthrow dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a month later.
The assembly elected in 2011 was supposed to write a constitution and hold new elections within a year. Instead the transition has dragged on for nearly two years as the country has been beset by social unrest, a faltering economy and terrorist attacks.
Referring to the weekend protests, Larayedh said: "Dialogue should not be in the streets or through violence but at the table and about strategies and plans."
The opposition, backed by the country's largest trade union and civil society groups, says Brahmi's assassination demonstrates the government's failure to protect its citizens and that the opposition should form a new "national salvation" Cabinet to replace the government.
But Larayedh criticized the opposition and said: "The government will continue its performance and redouble its efforts. We don't want to stay in power. We are not addicted to it."
Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui said Monday that security forces committed some abuses while dispersing protesters with tear gas early Monday. But he defended their efforts to avoid what he called a "blood bath" between the rival demonstrations.
There also have been anti-government protests in several cities in the interior of Tunisia since Thursday's assassination.
Associated Press writer Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Rabat, Morocco.