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Islamist Prime Minister Wants Nonpolitical Cabinet

3:09 PM, Feb 9, 2013   |    comments
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TUNIS, Tunisia  -- Tunisia's Islamist prime minister said on Saturday he will resign if his proposal to appoint a nonpolitical Cabinet by mid-week is rejected.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali called for that change on Wednesday after Tunisia was thrown into a crisis when a prominent opposition politician was shot and killed in Tunis, touching off violent protests.

Jebali's moderate Islamist Ennahda party has already rejected his proposal. But he didn't flinch, saying in an interview with the France-24 TV channel that to change the situation government ministers must be replaced by ones without a political affiliation, notably technocrats. "I feel obliged to save my country," he said, adding that Tunisia risks a "swing into chaos."

If his new team is accepted, "I will continue to assume my role," Jebali said. If not, he will withdraw from the government.

As Jabali spoke, several thousand pro-government protesters rallied on the main avenue of the capital. But outside Tunis, groups of youths threw stones at offices of the governing party and attacked police stations in several cities in scattered unrest.

The Interior Ministry said 230 people, aged 16 to 25, have been arrested since Friday, the day Chokri Belaid was buried. The slaying of the respected opposition figure unleashed anger, and his funeral drew hundreds of thousands of mourners chanting anti-government slogans in Tunis.

Saturday was the third straight day of unrest in this North African country, which overthrew its long-ruling president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in January 2011, kicking off the Arab Spring revolutions.

With tension mounting, Jebali said that he'll appoint a new Cabinet by mid-week, saying it would be small, made up of technocrats and therefore neutral. He said that key ministries, notably Interior, Justice and Foreign Affairs, would not be spared. Those ministries are currently led by ministers from his Ennahda party.

He called the planned changes a "Cabinet reshuffle" that would avoid the complicated -- and riskier -- process of dissolving the government. Such a new government would need approval from Tunisia's Constituent Assembly.

But under Tunisian law, each new Cabinet minister also would still need individual approval from the Assembly -- where Jebali's Ennahda party has a majority.

The shooting death Wednesday of Belaid, a lawyer and opposition figure, added to the growing turmoil in Tunisia, where the transition from dictatorship to democracy has been shaken by religious divides, political wrangling and economic struggles.

Hopes have been high that Tunisia could be a model for other Arab states finding their way in the Arab Spring.

Belaid, a human rights activist and one of Ennahda's most outspoken critics, was shot to death in his car outside his home. His killers have not been identified.

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