Thousands in Tunisia rally behind Islamist party

February 16, 2013 - 2:30 PM
Tunisia Pro Islamist Protest

Supporter of the Islamist ruling party Ennahda, hold Tunisian and party flags during a rally in Tunis, Tunisia, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. Activists from Tunisia's ruling Islamist party Ennahda denounce in a protest the plans for a government of technocrats to solve the country's crisis. (AP Photo/Amine Landouls)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Thousands of supporters of the ruling Islamist party, waving banners and chanting, marched Saturday in the capital in response to rising criticism about Tunisia's direction two years after its revolution.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has run afoul of his own governing party, Ennadha, by announcing he would seek to form a Cabinet of technocrats after leftist opposition politician Chokri Belaid was shot dead outside his home on Feb. 6 — setting off anti-government riots around the country. Saturday's demonstration was a show of support for the party in the face of Jebali's initiative.

Along Avenue Bourguiba, some demonstrators held up Ennahda flags adorned with a blue dove, crescent moon and red star. Banners bore phrases such as: "We are here by the people's will, only bayonets will make us leave" and "The revolution continues." The thoroughfare was an epicenter of protests that forced longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in January 2011, triggering a revolution that set off the so-called Arab Spring throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

"Ennahda is open to all Tunisians. It is the crucible where Islamists and modernists converge because it's an open and democratic movement. ... It represents the spinal column that holds Tunisia together," Ennadha leader Rachid Ghannouchi told the demonstrators outside the Tunis municipal theatre, to the cries of "God is Great" from many in the crowd.

Ennahda, a well-organized movement, was repressed under Ben Ali's secular rule and capitalized on the revolutionary fervor to win subsequent elections.

Some of Saturday's demonstrators were bussed in from Tunisia's more rural and impoverished central and western regions, and a smattering of Salafist militants and other radicals took part. Many insisted that Ennahda won the elections and that respect for democracy was paramount to safeguard the revolution.

"I am here to support the legitimacy of the ballot boxes and condemn violence — wherever it comes from. I am with democracy. It's fine by me, even if people choose other parties than Ennahda," said demonstrator Latifa Zayani, a schoolteacher in her 50s.

On Friday, Jebali said that talks between the opposition and the government would continue Monday on ways to defuse the political crisis. Only a day earlier, he had announced that he would seek to form a government of technocrats by Saturday — or resign. His initiative has backing of the opposition, but has put him on a collision course with Ennahda, which dominates the government and insists on sticking with a Cabinet of political figures.

The political crisis swelled after hundreds of thousands of people turned up at the funeral of Belaid, putting pressure on the Ennahda-led administration that was widely blamed for creating the violent environment that resulted in his death, as well as not solving persistent economic problems.