Tunisia’s ruling Islamists to step down, pave way for vote

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s Islamist-led government agreed yesterday to resign after talks with secular foes to form a caretaker administration and prepare for elections to safeguard the democratic transition in the country where the Arab Spring uprisings began.

The talks, which could begin next week, aim to end weeks of deadlock between the governing coalition and secular opposition that has endangered prospects for stable democracy almost three years after Tunisians toppled autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The crisis, which erupted in July after the killing of an opposition leader by suspected Muslim militants, has eroded an already fragile financial outlook and unnerved the North African country’s international lenders.

Tunisia’s powerful UGTT labour union, mediating between the sides, proposed three weeks of negotiations after which the Islamist Ennahda would yield to an non-partisan administration with a date for parliamentary and presidential elections.

“The dialogue will start on Monday or Tuesday,” Lotfi Zitoun, a senior Ennahda party official, told Reuters. “Ennahda has accepted the plan without conditions to get the country out of the political crisis.”

The UGTT confirmed the agreement and called on both sides to set a time to begin talks next week.

Since the street revolt that ousted Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisia has struggled with divisions over the political role of Islam in one of the Muslim’s world’s most secular countries.

The July assassination brought the secular opposition onto the streets to demand the fall of a government that critics accused of being lax with Islamist militants and wanted to impose an Islamist agenda.

Tunisia’s evolution towards democracy has been generally peaceful compared to Egypt, where the army overthrew an elected Islamist president after mass protests against his rule, and neighbouring Libya, where the central government is struggling to curb the influence of rival militias.

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