Thousands of members of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party Ennahda have protested to support their movement’s legitimacy and denounce plans for a government of technocrats aimed at resolving a major crisis.
Protesters, many waving party flags and some holding black Salafist banners, on Saturday thronged Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a Tunis boulevard that was the cradle of the 2011 uprising that ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
“Supporting Ennahda is a duty”, they shouted, also jeering ex-premier Beji Caid Essebsi and the secular opposition party Call of Tunisia, which he heads, and which portrays itself as an alternative to the ruling Islamists.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from the capital of Tunis, said that the huge crowds were “a show of force and a show of solidarity with Ennahda”.
“They’re chanting slogans denouncing remnants of the former regime, the seculars and the opposition, saying that they are trying to undermine Ennahda, and that Ennahda has the right to take part in any governing coalition simply because they were the biggest political party that emerged after the October 2011 election,” said Ahelbarra.
The mass rally was called by Ennahda to denounce Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s plan to form a government of technocrats in a bid to resolve Tunisia’s worst political crisis since the revolution.
Jebali, Ennahda’s number two, announced his plan to form a non-partisan government in the wake of public outrage over the killing of leftist leader Shokri Belaid, who was gunned down outside his home on February 6.
Belaid’s assassination sparked bloody clashes between opposition protesters and police and attacks on Ennahda offices.
The violence plunged Tunisia into further turmoil after months of failure to overhaul the government, while also laying bare divisions within the ruling party.
The prime minister has threatened to resign if he fails to get the support he needs to form his new government.
After meeting the leaders of the main parties on Friday, Jebali said talks on the new administration had been rescheduled for Monday and that a previous Saturday deadline for its formation had been cancelled, with no new date set.
Secualrs versus Islamists
Ennahda was repressed under Ben Ali’s regime but emerged as a powerful political force after his overthrow in January 2011, with its veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi returning from 20 years in exile to a hero’s welcome.
It won the first post-revolt polls in October 2011, securing the key foreign, interior and justice ministries in the coalition government, and controls the National Constituent Assembly, holding 89 of 271 seats.
But it is divided between moderates, among whom Jebali is the most prominent, and hardliners, represented by Ghannouchi, who are refusing to give up key portfolios, insisting on the party’s electoral legitimacy.
The family of Belaid, who was a scathing critic of the ruling Islamists, has accused Ennahda of orchestrating his killing, a claim the party denies.
The murder inquiry has yet to announce any progress in the case.
Belaid’s supporters are planning two memorial ceremonies on Saturday, one in southern Tunis and another in Jendouba in the northwest, from where his family hails.
Tensions between liberals and Islamists have simmered for months over the future direction of the once proudly secular Muslim nation.
For some Belaid supporters, the suspicion of blame for his assassination has fallen on the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a controversial group linked to Ennahda and implicated in attacks on secular opposition groups.
Created in May 2012, the group has denied using violence, despite accusations by civil society and opposition groups that it was behind several brutal attacks that have shocked Tunisians and prompted calls for its dissolution.
The League, which is expected to swell the numbers of protesters at Saturday’s pro-Islamist rally, said its president, Mohamed Maalej, was resigning in order to form a political party.