Tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of the Tunisian capital on Tuesday to demand the resignation of the government as the political crisis in the North African nation deepened.
The country has been wracked by political unrest since the July 25 murder of opposition lawmaker Mohammed Brahmi and Tuesday’s protests marked the biggest anti-government demonstration since the assassination.
A police official estimated that 40,000 people crowded the streets of Tunis to call for the government led by the moderate Islamic movement Ennahda to step down. Opposition leaders cited in local media put the crowd figure at 100,000 to 200,000.
Earlier on Tuesday, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) — a body elected in 2011 to forge consensus on a new constitution — was suspended.
Brahmi’s murder, as well as that of another opposition politician, Chokri Belaid, have been blamed on radical Islamists, with the Ennahda-led Cabinet criticized for not doing enough to prevent them.
The demonstration attracted a mixed bag of opposition parties, ranging from extreme left to center-right, and was timed to mark six months since Belaid was gunned down outside his home.
Protesters carried pictures of both Belaid and Brahmi and shouted slogans, such as: “The people want the regime to fall” and “The government will end today.”
The march was peacefull.
Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar said the ANC’s work would be halted until the government and opposition opened negotiations to break the deadlock “in the service of Tunisia.”
Brahmi’s killing had already prompted several opposition members to boycott the ANC and its suspension was a key demand of the protesters on the street.
However, the stalemate showed no sign of ending, with the opposition refusing to hold talks with the government until it steps down and Ennahda ruling out any dialogue conditional on its ouster.
Larayedh has refused to quit, offering instead to broaden the coalition.
Ben Jaafar criticized the country’s politicians for failing to find a compromise as Tunisia also battles mounting terror threats.
“Despite the gravity of the situation and instead of working towards unity, unfortunately party leaders have gone in the opposite direction, towards division, by mobilizing” street protests, he said.
Since the ANC was elected in October 2011, political leaders have failed to find a consensus on a new constitution following a revolution that ousted longtime former Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
The suspension of the assembly’s work throws into question Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh’s target of the ANC adopting a new constitution and electoral law by Oct. 23 ahead of a Dec. 17 election.
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, quoted in La Presse newspaper on Tuesday, said the government will not step down under pressure from the street, while Larayedh charged that demonstrators were hampering efforts by security forces to root out gunmen linked to al-Qaeda.