TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The Islamist party dominating Tunisia's ruling coalition on Thursday rejected its own prime minister's decision to replace the government to try to appease critics, signaling that the political crisis brought on by the assassination of a prominent leftist politician is far from over.
A few dozen protesters also tried to demonstrate in front of the Interior Ministry several times but were driven off by tear gas, avoiding an apparent attempt to reprise the riots that convulsed the heart of the capital Wednesday.
But a dramatic turnout is expected Friday for the funeral of Chokri Belaid, a politician shot outside his home by unknown assailants; coupled with a general strike called by the main labor union, the events raise the prospect of confrontations nationwide. There were already full-scale riots in the southern mining city of Gafsa on Thursday, where the murdered Belaid's Popular Front coalition of leftist parties has strong support.
The announcement by the ruling party, Ennahda, throws into question efforts to resolve one of the worst political crises Tunisia has faced since its revolution two years ago. It also makes plain the divisions aren't just between the Islamist government and the largely secular opposition, but also the hardline and moderate wings of the ruling party.
Tunisia had been seen as a model for the transition to democracy after its people ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and kicked off the Arab Spring, but political violence and allegations of government negligence have dimmed those hopes. The latest events have raised fears Tunisia may not be an exception to the turmoil in the region.
The situation has yet to degenerate to the point of Egypt, the scene of regular street battles between police and protesters and a total breakdown of trust between the Islamist government and the opposition. Tunisia's Islamists rule in coalition with other parties and must rely on consensus more than Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
Ennahda was long repressed under the secular rule of Ben Ali, but after his overthrow in January 2011, the well-organized movement dominated subsequent elections and formed a coalition with two secular parties.
In the ensuing year, however, tensions long suppressed by the dictatorship surged to the surface, especially with a string of attacks by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis against arts, culture and people they deemed to be impious
Belaid, a secularist and a fierce critic of hardline Islamists as well as the ruling party, was shot several times outside his home Wednesday morning by unknown assailants.
His death came as relations between the government and the opposition had deteriorated with talks on a government reshuffle going nowhere. To make matters worse, critics such as Belaid accused the government of relying on hired thugs to attack meetings of the opposition.
To ease tensions, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced late Wednesday he would dissolve the government and form a new one of nonpartisan technocrats to manage the country until elections, giving in to the longstanding opposition demand.
On Thursday, however, the party's executive committee rejected the move and maintained that it was not going to toss away legitimacy it had gained in elections.
"The position of Ennahda is that the troika (the three-party ruling coalition) will continue to lead the country but it is open to a partial ministerial reshuffle," party spokesman Abdallah Zouari told The Associated Press. That is the same position the party had before the assassination and subsequent protests.
A high-level member of the party who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject said the party was already in talks with its coalition partners and the opposition to resolve the crisis. The party has also bolstered its position in the constitutional assembly by allying with three other small parties, giving it a comfortable two-thirds majority of the 217-seat body.
"With this increase, Ennahda and its allies have a comfortable majority to confront calls doubting our legitimacy in the assembly," said Ziad Doulatli, a member of the party's ruling council. Opposition parties had suspended their participation in the body after Wednesday's assassination.
Belaid's family and associates blame Ennahda for complicity in the 48-year-old's killing, but have not offered proof, and other opposition figures have claimed there is a list of potential targets. Ennahda denies any involvement.
"It is the Ennahda and no one else that killed him," the slain politician's father Salah Belaid at his home as mourners came to pay their respects. "He told me, 'Father, they are targeting me' ... most of the time he wasn't sleeping at his home."
In an autopsy attended by the country's chief prosecutor Wednesday night, the coroner removed three bullets from Belaid's body as well as pieces of glass from the car window the gunmen shot him through.
Opposition parties had hailed Jebali's attempt to form a new government as courageous. The year-old government has often been criticized for being unable to tackle the country's problems, chief among them high unemployment and an economy battered by Europe's financial crisis and too few tourists.
"It's a recognition of the need to totally change the government which is incapable of running the country," said Taieb Baccouche, secretary-general of the right-of-center Tunisia's Call party, one of the main opposition parties. "There has to be immediate consultation between all the parties involved to avoid unilateral decisions."
The country's largest labor union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, called for a general strike on Friday in a clear expression of their opposition to the Ennahda government. A threat to call a general strike in December was defused by negotiations.
As one of the most organized groups in society and with a left-wing leadership, the UGTT, as it is known, has long been a counterbalance to Ennahda's formidable grass roots network. The last time it called a general strike, in 1978, riots erupted around the country.
Associated Press reporters Oleg Cetinic in Tunis and Paul Schemm in Rabat contributed to this report.