Assembly set to elect Tunisian interim president

December 12, 2011 - 6:55 AM

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's new constitutional assembly appeared set Monday to elect a veteran human rights activist to serve as the country's interim president, the fledgling democracy's latest step toward establishing a government whose most pressing challenge may be resuscitating the economy.

The election of the interim president follows the weekend approval of temporary bylaws to guide the nation until the assembly finishes a constitution. It also comes six weeks after landmark elections and nearly a year after Tunisians overthrew their longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — an uprising that sparked similar movements in other Arab states.

The assembly is expected to choose as the interim president veteran rights activist Moncef Marzouki of the liberal Congress for the Republic Party, which is part of a ruling coalition led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, which dominated the landmark October elections.

The new bylaws give most of the power to the prime minister, as opposed to the president under the old system — a change that worries the opposition. The bylaws also stipulate that the president must be Muslim with Tunisian parents, over 35 and not a dual citizen of another country. Tunisia is 98 percent Muslim, but has some Jewish and Christian citizens.

The president is expected to appoint a prime minister from Ennahda, whose ruling coalition also includes the left of center Ettakatol Party. The new prime minister then has 21 days to form a government. The prime minister and the government he forms also are in effect temporary until the the country holds a round of post-constitutional elections.

"It is the head of the government not the head of the republic that will be the center of executive power," said Habib Khedr, a member of Ennahda and the head of the commission that drew up the bylaws.

Although the bylaws passed with the coalition's comfortable majority, many were harshly contested by the opposition, which consists mainly of liberal and left-wing parties.

The centering of power in the hands of the prime minister especially created disquiet among the opposition. Nejib Chebbi of the left of center Progressive Democratic Party warned of "a new dictatorship."

"In the old regime, all the powers were held by the former president, today we are putting them in the hands of the prime minister," he said.

Ennahda, which was severely repressed by the old regime, has said its goal is to ensure that there can never be another dictatorship in Tunisia. The party also has gone out of its way to reassure secular Tunisians that it has no plans on imposing religious values on one of the more Westernized countries in the Middle East.

In any case, the issue that may be the most important in the minds of most Tunisians is the country's faltering economy.

Last week the central bank warned that urgent measures needed to be taken as it revised down estimates for Tunisia's growth in 2011 from 1.5 percent to flat or negative.

Tunisia's economy relies heavily on tourism, which has been driven away by post-revolutionary unrest. The phosphates industry, which has been ravaged by labor strikes and exports to Europe, is undergoing an economic crisis of its own.

Once the government is formed, the assembly will turn its attention to writing the country's new constitution and preparing for presidential, legislative and local elections.

"This historical document marks the real beginning of a new Tunisia," announced the assembly's president, Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the Ettakatol Party, as the bylaws were finally passed late Saturday night, after days of wrangling.