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Arab World

Early elections to help Tunisia out of crisis

Following the killing of a prominent opposition politician, tension is increasing again. The prime minister has called early elections, but some people think he's waiting too long to hand over power.

Tunisia is sinking ever deeper into a political crisis. There were fresh clashes between supporters and opponents of the Islamist-dominated government following the murder of the left-wing opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi on July 25. The gap between the two sides seems to be unbridgeable. The death of eight soldiers in fighting with armed extremists seems to have heightened the tension further.

The prime minister, Ali Larayedh, has called early elections for December 17: a new democratically legitimate government would then lead the way out of the continuing misery in what is, after the all, the country where the Arab Spring was born. But many Tunisians aren't prepared to wait that long.

As they did after the killing of the prominent government critic Chokri Belaid in early February, tens of thousands took to the streets after Brahmi was killed. The memorial procession turned into a demonstration against the government. According to investigators, both killings were carried out with the same weapon. The government blames the Salafists; Brahmi's family thinks that the killer will is linked to the ruling Ennahda party.

Mourners carry the coffin of slain opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi during his funeral procession towards the nearby cemetery of El-Jellaz, where he is to be buried, in Tunis July 27, 2013. Tunisia's interior minister said that Brahmi had been killed with the same gun that was used to kill his party leader Chokri Belaid six months ago, suggesting the involvement of the same radical Islamist group. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi (TUNISIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS OBITUARY CRIME LAW TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Brahmi's funeral procession turned into a protest against the government

According to Yacine Khadraoui of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Tunis, a German foundation affiliated with the liberal Free Democratic party, the mood is even tenser than it was at the start of the year, although you can't tell from the size of the demonstrations. "There were more people out for Chokri Belaid because it wasn't Ramadan," he points out - many people only go out once the fasting is over after dark during Ramadan.

Street battles in Tunisia

Early Monday morning, there were more than 5,000 supporters and 5,000 opponents of the government marching through Tunis and throwing stones at each other. The army closed a central square with barbed wire. In Brahmi's home town Sidi Bouzid, police used tear gas against people throwing stones.

But the Tunisian political scientist Larbi Chouikha doesn't think the situation can be compared with the situation in Egypt. He doesn't expect similar developments, but warns, "One can find the same discontent among people on the street and the same division of society."

In Egypt, the army overthrew the elected president, Mohammed Morsi on July 3 and has been responding with massive violence against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Tunisian army has been playing a much smaller role.

Independent government of experts

Layaredh hopes to calm the situation with his proposal for early elections. He rejects demands that he resign immediately: "We are not clinging on to power, but we have a task and a responsibility which we will carry out until the end."

The social democratic Ettakatol party, which is one of three in the government coalition, doesn't agree. It wants power to be handed to a government of national unity: "If Ennahda rejects the proposal, we will leave the coalition," says one of the party's leading members, Lobni Jribi. The powerful trade union federation UGTT also wants the coalition to be replaced by an independent government of experts.

Tunisian premier-designate Ali Larayedh announces a proposed new coalition government during a press conference following his meeting with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki on March 8, 2013 in Tunis. Larayedh unveiled the new government, just hours ahead of his deadline, composed of people from the parties of the outgoing alliance and independents. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Larayedh doesn't want to give up power before elections

Chouikha would also like to see the end of the controversial Islamist-led coalition: "No-one can claim to have the key to the truth," he says, referring to Ennahda. What's needed is a "government of national salvation," in which personal and political preferences have no place. He thinks the election date of December 17 is crazy: "Seven or eight months are needed to prepare." Chouikha was among those who supervised the first elections following the overthrow of the dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011.

Fewer votes expected for Ennahda

Whatever the date of the election, Chouikha expects that Ennahda as the Tunisian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood will suffer a substantial loss of support: "I think support for Ennahda is collapsing," he says, and sees continuing economic misery and the crisis in society as responsible. "It's all very well talking about religion and identity," he points out, "but the people need something to eat." More and more young people were unable to find a job, even though they had qualifications.

But neither Chouikha nor Khadraoui feel prepared to forecast how things will develop - there are two many unknown factors. Unlike in Egypt, dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood has not yet broken down and that gives Khadraoui cause for hope: "You can negotiate with the Ennahda people," he says, and perhaps that will help to calm the situation down during the period until the election.

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