Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda Movement and the opposition have until noon today to agree on a new prime minister to steer the country out of a months-long political crisis, a mediator said.
They originally had until Saturday to bridge their differences, but that deadline passed without an agreement being reached.
“We have not reached a consensus on the prime minister ... We are going to continue discussions for another day or two in order to arrive at a consensus,” Ennahda official Ameur Larayedh said after about 12 hours of talks on Saturday.
According to politicians contacted by foreign media, the negotiators could not decide between the opposition’s pick, Mohamed Ennaceur, 79, and Ahmed Mestiri, 88, backed by Ennahda and its allies.
Both are well-respected and served under Habib Bourguiba, who led the fight for Tunisia’s independence from its French colonial masters and served as its first president.
Tensions have gripped the country since the 2011 toppling of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987. The current crisis was triggered by the murder of two opposition politicians by suspected Islamist radicals.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party whose resignation has been demanded by the opposition, has pledged to step down and allow the creation of a government of independents to resolve the crisis.
After months of stalling, the Islamist-led government opened talks with the opposition on Oct. 25 to form the new government, agree on a much-delayed constitution and prepare for elections.
The roadmap to resolve the crisis was drafted by mediators, including the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT).
The negotiating committee consists of National Constituent Assembly president Mustapha Ben Jaafar, Ennahda leader Rashid al-Ghannushi and five opposition figures. They met on Saturday with UGTT secretary-general Housine Abassi.
“We consider Mestiri to be the man of the moment,” Ennahda spokesman Zied Laadhari said. “He is equally distant from everyone.”
However, Mourad Amdouni, a representative for a coalition of leftist parties, said Mestiri “is not [physically] up to fulfilling the mission of prime minister.”
Mestiri held several key portfolios in successive governments under Bourguiba — finance, justice, defense and interior — while Ennaceur is an expert on social affairs.
Whoever is tapped will have two weeks to form a government of independents to prepare for elections.
Larayedh has pledged to step down so long as the timetable is respected.
The assembly, which finally met in plenary session on Saturday to discuss steps to speed up procedures, has until the end of the month to draw up a new constitution and an electoral law.
The electoral timetable was set back after a court ruled that the assembly’s selection of an electoral commission, which had been slated for Saturday, must be postponed until a law creating it is passed.
However, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki’s office announced on Saturday morning that he had promulgated the law.
The crisis was sparked when lawmaker Mohamed al-Brahmi was gunned down outside his house in July, six months after the murder of opposition politician Chokri Belaid.
Both killings were blamed on suspected jihadists, who were suppressed under Ben Ali and now accused of a wave of violence that has hit the country since his ouster.