Tunisia has struggled to restore stability since mass protests ousted Ben Ali after 23 years in power [REUTERS]
Tunisia will hold an election on July 24 to choose a constituent assembly that will rewrite the constitution and chart the country's transition after the ousting of its veteran leader, the interim president said.
In a televised speech late on Thursday, interim president Fouad Mebazza, who has been in charge since Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled on January 14, said he and a caretaker government would stay in power until the election was held.
"We are proclaiming today that we are entering a new era ... and a new political system which definitively breaks with the ousted regime," Mebazza said.
Mebazza said the July 24 vote would be for the "formation of a national constituent assembly that will develop a new constitution."
He said the current constitution "does not meet the aspirations of the people after the revolution" and was "an obstacle to transparent elections", adding he would remain in office until the July 24 vote.
The president and a new transitional government to be formed by interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi will create a "public authority" that will cease functioning when the constituent assembly is elected, he said.
Mebazza said a "special electoral system" would be prepared by a commission before the end of March to handle the assembly vote.
Hundreds of people greeted the president's announcement by celebrating in the Kasbah area in Tunis, waving flags and flicking "V-for-victory" signs.
Civil groups welcomed the announcement.
"We will work with other political forces to help the public authority realise its mission. The programme is clear," said Ali Ben Romdhane, deputy secretary general of the powerful UGTT trade union.
"This is a victory for the people and for the revolution," said Hamma Hammami, the head of the Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia (PCOT).
Ali Larayedh, a member of the al-Nahda party that was banned for two decades under Ben Ali, told Reuters the move is "a step towards democracy, direct democracy by the people".
"I think this will allow political forces of all colours to be present in the political arena," he said.
Tunisia has struggled to restore stability since mass protests ousted Ben Ali after 23 years in power.
Interim authorities initially promised to hold a presidential election by mid-July but persistent street unrest and a wave of resignations from the caretaker government threatened to derail the fragile transition.
Security forces killed five people during big demonstrations at the weekend and six members of the interim government have stepped down since Sunday, bowing to protesters frustrated at the slow pace of change since Ben Ali's departure.
Fears of a power vacuum were compounded by a provision in the current constitution that limits the mandate of a caretaker president to 60 days in office.
Analysts said the president's statement laid out a road map for the transition and might relieve some pressure on the interim government.
"I think it's an important step towards reconciliation," said Slaheddin Jourchi, a political analyst in Tunis. "At least now the interim government has a clearer agenda, an expiry date on its mandate," he said.
Changing the constitution is regarded as a vital step towards creating a proper multi-party system and paving the way for democratic elections.
That may take some time -- Jourchi estimated it could be up to two years before a presidential election is called.
Also it was not immediately clear what would happen to parliament, where Ben Ali's old guard still holds sway.
The Tunisian revolution has provided the inspiration for uprisings in other parts of the Arab world.
But persistent outbreaks of violence in North Africa's most developed state have added to the uncertainty of the post-Ben Ali era, leading some commentators to predict the military may step in to take over the transition.