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


* Ennahda, opposition negotiations may start next week

* Aim to end impasse endangering democratic transition

* Disagreement may emerge over date of new elections

* Tunisia kicked off Arab Spring uprisings in 2011

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Tunisia's Islamist-led governmentagreed on Saturday to resign after talks with secular foes toform a caretaker administration and prepare for elections tosafeguard the democratic transition in the country where theArab Spring uprisings began.

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

The crisis, which erupted in July after the killing of anopposition leader by suspected Muslim militants, has eroded analready fragile financial outlook and unnerved the North Africancountry's international lenders.

Tunisia's powerful UGTT labour union, mediating between thesides, proposed three weeks of negotiations after which theIslamist Ennahda would yield to an non-partisan administrationwith a date for parliamentary and presidential elections.

"The dialogue will start on Monday or Tuesday," LotfiZitoun, a senior Ennahda party official, told Reuters. "Ennahdahas accepted the plan without conditions to get the country outof the political crisis."

The UGTT confirmed the agreement and called on both sides toset 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 ofIslam in one of the Muslim's world's most secular countries.

The July assassination brought the secular opposition ontothe streets to demand the fall of a government that criticsaccused of being lax with Islamist militants and wanted toimpose an Islamist agenda.


Tunisia's evolution towards democracy has been generallypeaceful compared to Egypt, where the army overthrew an electedIslamist president after mass protests against his rule, andneighbouring Libya, where the central government is strugglingto curb the influence of rival militias.

In contrast, Ennahda shared power in a coalition with twosecular junior partners and had sought to defuse worries that itcould impose an strict Islamist programme impinging on liberaleducation and women's rights.

Many opponents, however, believe Ennahda has mismanaged theeconomy and gone easy on hardline Islamists blamed for attackson secular Tunisians. Critics believe Ennahda had been onlyplaying for time to shore up its position before elections.

But the party itself was split between moderates andrelative hardliners who called for sharia (strict Islamic law)to be enshrined in the new constitution of a country of 11million that relies heavily on secular European tourism.

Both sides agreed on the need for negotiations, but talkscould still struggle to overcome differences over the role of aconstituent assembly writing the new constitution, over a newelectoral law and the date for elections.

Many Tunisians are especially worried about the high cost ofliving and the economic fallout from the political crisis.

Ennahda remains the most coherent Tunisian political forcebut its public support has waned as the crisis has festered.

But the party, which won around 41 percent of the seats inthe constituent assembly in October 2011, is still popular andorganised enough to have mustered 100,000 supporters for a street march in August.

The opposition is a mix of Nidaa Tounes, a secular partyfilled with former regime officials, and smaller leftistparties. But Nidaa leader Beji Caid Essebsi, a former pro-regimebusinessman who served a stint as prime minister after Ben Ali'sfall, has emerged as an important opposition figure.

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