Tunisia’s Islamist premier Ali Larayedh made a written pledge to step down in a last-ditch bid to rescue crisis talks on Friday that the opposition was threatening to boycott.
The national dialogue aims to end months of political deadlock between the government and the mainly secular opposition that has paralyzed Tunisia’s political transition nearly three years after the January 2011 overthrow of veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Amid growing doubts that the opposition would attend a new attempt to launch the negotiations on Friday, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh sent a written commitment to mediators that his government would resign, his ruling party al-Nahda said.
The pledge drew a positive initial reaction from opposition members, although an official reaction had yet to be announced.
Fadhel Mahfoudh, president of the bar association that is helping mediate the crisis, said he thought the national dialogue could begin later on Friday following a delay of several hours.
“The national dialogue launch will go ahead at 10:00 am (0900 GMT),” the UGTT trade union confederation, which has been the lead mediator in the protracted political crisis, said just hours before the planned start.
“We will see which parties turn up.”
Earlier efforts to launch the talks on October 5 and 23 failed, most recently after a statement by Larayedh failed to satisfy opposition demands.
“Last night on television, Tunisia’s prime minister reiterated his government’s pledge to step down according to the quartet roadmap, following the implementation of the preceding milestones in the roadmap,” al-Nahda said on Friday.
“A signed statement of the same pledge has been sent to the quartet hosting the national dialogue.”
The opposition has previously refused to join the talks until Larayedh gives a “clear and explicit” undertaking that his government will step down within three weeks of the dialogue’s launch.
“Personally speaking, I think the written commitment responds to the expectations of (opposition coalition) the National Salvation Front and the dialogue should be able to start,” Mongi Ellouze, a member of the opposition tasked with examining Larayedh’s latest proposal, told AFP.
One major opposition faction, the Nidaa Tounes party of ex-premier Beji Caid Essebsi, an outspoken al-Nahda critic, had said only a written commitment to the three-week deadline from the government would persuade it to join the dialogue.
The timeframe is stipulated in the hard-won roadmap brokered by the mediators between the government and the opposition, at the end of which a caretaker cabinet of technocrats is to be appointed.
The blueprint also sets a parallel one-month timeframe for the adoption of a new constitution and electoral laws, and a timetable for fresh elections, which the government is insisting must also be adhered to.
Bitter divisions between the al-Nahda-led government and its secular opponents have blocked progress on those key political issues, hampering Tunisia’s democratic transition.
The heightened political uncertainty comes amid a tense security situation in Tunisia which was still marking three days of national mourning for six policemen killed in a clash with suspected militants in the central Sidi Bouzid region on Wednesday.
The country has been rocked by violence blamed on jihadi groups suppressed under Ben Ali.
Early on Friday morning, police shot and wounded a suspected militant after a car chase in a Tunis suburb, but the interior ministry later said that those traveling in the car were “drunken youths” with no links to terrorism.
The interior ministry said one suspect was taken to hospital with bullet wounds while four others were arrested.
It said the men had been traveling in a vehicle which ignored police orders to stop.
Bloodstains were visible on the pavement at the scene, as police with sniffer dogs inspected a vehicle parked close to a nearby college to check for explosives.
The college itself was evacuated.
Public anger has been mounting over the death toll from jihadi violence, which saw two al-Nahda offices torched on Thursday as seven slain police officers were laid to rest.
The failure of the government to rein in militants has been one of the principal grievances of the opposition, which has boycotted work on drawing up a new constitution since the killing of one its MPs by suspected jihadis in July.
The government has admitted it has struggled to contain the militants but blamed a lack of resources.