Tunisia: Thousands stage rival rallies ahead of Westerwelle visit

14th Aug 2013

Tens of thousands of supporters and opponents of Tunisia’s Islamist-led government have held rival rallies to mark national women’s day. They came a day before Germany’s foreign minister was due to arrive in the country.

Two competing demonstrations were held in Tunisia’s capital Tunis on Tuesday to mark the 57th anniversary of landmark women’s rights legislation.

Anti-government parties said tens of thousands of people took part in a march from central Tunis to parliament buildings in the suburb of Bardo. Mainly female secularist protesters chanted slogans for women’s rights and against the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.

“Tunisian women today are telling the Islamists ‘Get out, we want a modern government,'” one protester named Sonia told news agency Reuters.

A few kilometres away a pro-government demonstration drew a smaller crowd, although thousands were reported to have taken part. Government supporters gathered in the capital’s central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the epicenter of the 2011 revolt that overthrew veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“The Tunisian woman is with elections and against the toppling of the government,” read a sign waved by one Ennahda supporter.

Women’s Day commemorates the enactment of a series of laws passed in 1956 which banned polygamy and gave women rights to equal pay and education. Known as the Personal Status Code, the laws were the most socially progressive in the Arab world.

Simmering tensions

Tuesday’s rallies were the latest in a series of rival demonstrations which have followed the July 25 assassination of prominent opposition legislator Mohamed Brahmi. Despite fears of clashes, no violence was reported.

The opposition is demanding the resignation of the Islamist-led assembly and coalition, calling for a cabinet of technocrats to run the country until elections which are scheduled for December. It accuses Ennahda of eroding women’s rights and of being too passive in dealing with hard-line Islamists accused of murdering Brahmi and fellow secular politician Chokri Belaid back in February.

Ennahda has rejected the call, insisting it has the right to lead the government after emerging from the October 2011 elections as the largest party. It has instead suggested that its opponents join a broader governing coalition.

Tensions between Islamists and secularists have been exacerbated by the Egyptian military’s July 3 overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following widespread protests. Observers suggest Tunisia could be looking to replicate the “Egyptian scenario” in which a disgruntled secular opposition topples an elected Islamist-led government.

Westerwelle visits

With tensions mounting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is due to arrive in Tunisia on Wednesday for a two-day visit during which he will hold talks with government officials and opposition figures.

According to a foreign ministry spokesperson, Westerwelle’s visit is designed to ensure that the “threads of discussion are not ripped apart at this crucial state of political transformation.”

“Compromises must be found for a joint solution to a new democratic, constitutional order,” the spokesperson said.

ccp/av (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)



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