TUNIS The leader of Tunisia's main Islamist Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, said on Tuesday he expected Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to form a coalition government this week that would include politicians as well as technocrats.
Tunisia was thrown into political turmoil last week by the assassination of secular opposition politician Chokri Belaid.
After the killing, Jebali proposed forming a cabinet of apolitical technocrats to take Tunisia to elections, but did not consult his own Ennahda party or its secular coalition partners.
Ghannouchi said Ennahda had rejected Jebali's idea and would make a counter-proposal. "A project for a political government will be presented today to the prime minister to form a team of politicians and technocrats," he told Reuters in an interview.
"I expect that agreement will be reached and that Jebali will remain the prime minister of a coalition government," he said, adding that only a party-based cabinet could win support in the National Constituent Assembly and in the street.
Violent protests, in which one policeman was killed, swept Tunisia after Belaid's assassination, with crowds attacking Ennahda offices in Tunis and elsewhere. Tens of thousands of people turned out for the slain leader's funeral on Friday.
Ghannouchi said Ennahda might even withdraw from the government if Jebali insisted on forming a technocrat cabinet, although it was not clear how this could work in practice.
He said it was essential that Islamists and secular parties shared power now and in the future. "Any stable rule in Tunisia needs a moderate Islamist-secular coalition," he said.
He dismissed critics who say Ennahda is trying to erode freedom of expression and women's rights in the constitution that the National Constituent Assembly is supposed to draw up.
"PEOPLE ARE ANGRY"
The Islamist leader suggested Ennahda might compromise over control of portfolios such as defence, foreign affairs, justice and interior. "We are ready to discuss all ministries, including sovereign ones, in a new coalition government," he said.
Ghannouchi, who returned from exile to a hero's welcome in Tunisia days after a popular uprising overthrew strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, said his main disappointment since then was the lack of social and economic progress.
"People are angry because they feel the revolution did not change their lives," he said.
Earlier in the day, Ettakatol, a leftist party in the ruling coalition threw its weight behind Jebali's proposal for a neutral cabinet of technocrats and urged Ennahda to support it.
The other non-Islamist coalition partner, the Congress for the Republic led by interim President Moncef Marzouki, on Monday reversed its decision to quit the government while talks go on.
Mustapha Ben Jaafar, Ettakatol's secretary-general and head of the National Constituent Assembly, called for national unity, saying Tunisia's transition to democracy was at stake.
"If this Tunisian experiment fails, no Arab experiment will succeed," he told a news conference.
Tunisia was the cradle of revolts that swept the Arab world two years ago, but until now has experienced little of the violence witnessed in North African neighbours such as Egypt and Libya during their troubled transitions from autocratic rule.
Ghannouchi said "counter-revolutionaries" were still entrenched in the media, bureaucracy and elsewhere, but rejected the idea that Tunisia's revolution was under threat.
"It goes through stages, just as a plane goes through turbulence, but it completes its journey, insh'allah."
(Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alison Williams)