Tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of the Tunisian capital to demand the resignation of the government as the political crisis in Tunisia deepened. The country has been wracked by political unrest since the July 25 murder of opposition lawmaker Mohamed 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 put the figure at 100,000-200,000.
Brahmi's murder, as well as that of another opposition politician,
Chokri Belaid, have been blamed on radical Islamists, with the
Ennahda-led cabinet criticised for not doing enough to prevent them. The demonstration attracted a mixed bag of opposition parties, ranging
from extreme left to centre-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 passed off peacefully.
Also on Tuesday, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) -- a body
elected in 2011 to forge consensus on drafting a new constitution -- was
suspended. 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. The stalemate showed no sign of ending, however, with the opposition
refusing to hold talks with the government until it steps down and
Ennahda ruling out any dialogue conditional on its ouster. 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 president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The suspension of the assembly's work throws into question Prime
Minister Ali Larayedh's target of the ANC adopting a new constitution
and electoral law by October 23 ahead of a December 17 election. Larayedh has refused to quit, offering instead to broaden the coalition.
Ennahda chief 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. "There are excessive demands at protests for the dissolution of the elected government," Ghannouchi told La Presse. "In democratic regimes, protests don't change governments. It's under
dictatorial regimes that a demonstration is able to topple a regime."
Earlier Tuesday, before its work was suspended, the ANC had gathered to
discuss the "terrorist crisis" as security forces pressed on with a
vast operation to hunt down militants holed up in the rugged Mount
Chaambi region near the Algerian border. Speaking to the assembly, Larayedh had harsh words for the
demonstrators, saying their activities meant security forces "are
obliged to be in the streets when they should be participating in the
battle against terrorism". Defence Minister Rachid Sabbagh told the ANC that the armies of Tunisia
and Algeria would "reinforce their cooperation, particularly to arrest
the Chaambi terrorists.".