Political gridlock handcuffs Tunisia

Ruling party rejects PM's reshuffle bid

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TUNIS, Tunisia -- New political uncertainties gripped Tunisia on Thursday, a day after officials moved to contain the fallout from the assassination of a leading opposition figure. A plan to reshape the Islamist-led administration in favor of a national unity government encountered strong resistance, as protesters again demonstrated on the streets of the capital and elsewhere.

The country's dominant Ennahda Party rejected the plan to dissolve the government, as proposed Wednesday by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali.

"The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party," Abdelhamid Jelassi, Ennahda's vice president, said in a statement reported on the party's website and in Tunisian news reports. "We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with others parties about forming a coalition government."

The statement appeared to inject a new element of political tension into an already-fragile situation in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings more than two years ago.

Residents of Tunis said hundreds of protesters -- far fewer than Wednesday -- took to the streets Thursday, while the French Embassy said on its website that it would close its schools in the capital today and Saturday for fear of renewed outbursts of violence. France is the former colonial power in Tunisia and has traditionally had a strong diplomatic presence in this North African nation.

In the southern mining city of Gafsa, riots broke out, and police fired tear gas at demonstrators who threw stones, a local radio station reported. The city is known as a powerful base of support for Chokri Belaid, the slain opposition figure.

Some reports also spoke of tear gas being fired in the capital, as protesters again converged on the Interior Ministry headquarters in what has been depicted as the worst crisis since the revolt that overthrew Tunisia's autocratic leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in January 2011.

Fresh unrest loomed with the prospect of a general strike today on the same day as the funeral of Mr. Belaid, likely to be a highly emotional event in its own right. Additionally, Friday, the Muslim holy day, has been associated with unrest and protest since the beginning of the Arab world revolts.

Mr. Belaid was one of Tunisia's best-known human rights defenders and a fierce critic of the ruling Islamist party. His killing placed dangerous new strains on a society struggling to reconcile its identity as a long-vaunted bastion of Arab secularism with its new role as a proving ground for one of the region's ascendant Islamist parties.

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