Tunisia's Islamist prime minister resigns amid nationwide protests

Social unrest and an economic slowdown have piled pressure on country's ruling Ennahda party

Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh gives a press conference in Tunis.
Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty

Tunisia's premier handed in his resignation Thursday to make way for an interim government of independents under a plan to end months of political deadlock and mounting social unrest, the state news agency said.

Just days before the third anniversary of the overthrow of veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh was due to step down under a plan drawn up by mediators to put the transition back on track.

His resignation is expected to lead to his replacement within 15 days by premier-designate Mehdi Jomaa at the head of a government of technocrats that will lead the country to fresh elections under a new constitution.

The powerful UGTT trade union confederation, which has been the lead mediator in the six-month crisis between the moderate Islamist-led government and the mainly secular opposition, had called on the premier to step down by Thursday under the terms of its reconciliation road map.

As the economy has stagnated and social unrest has intensified, the Ennahda party has been under mounting pressure to relinquish the grip on power it won after the uprising in elections to a constituent assembly.

Events in fellow Arab Spring country Egypt, where elected President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the army in July after a single year in power, have compounded the pressure.

The approval of a new constitution, which Ennahda had also demanded in return for handing over power, is on track to meet an agreed deadline of Jan. 14, the uprising's third anniversary, with the assembly voting on it intensively article by article.

The new charter had been delayed for months by the withdrawal of opposition assembly members in protest of the killing of one of their own by suspected jihadists in July.

But their return has seen compromises swiftly reached on many of the most divisive provisions, including gender equality and the role of Islam.

On Thursday, the constituent assembly agreed to an article setting a goal of 50–50 representation between the sexes in all elected bodies, in keeping with the secularism that the country adopted at independence, which has given Tunisian women the most extensive rights in the region.

The quickening political reconciliation moves come against a backdrop of an intensification of the social unrest that was a key catalyst for the 2011 uprising.

Central Tunisia in particular, where a young street vendor sparked the uprising by setting himself on fire in protest of his impoverished circumstances, has seen a spate of violent protests in recent days.

Late on Wednesday, several hundred people demonstrated in the town of Feriana, in the central Kasserine region, attacking a tax office, a police post, a bank and a municipal building, residents and a policeman told Agence France-Presse.

The UGTT called a general strike in Kasserine on Wednesday to protest the persistent economic crisis gripping the town.

Nationwide, growth was less than 3 percent last year, insufficient to bring down the country's unemployment rate, which exceeds 30 percent.

Wire services

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