Tunisia Islamists, opponents trade insults

Political tensions are mounting in Tunisia, with the opposition adopting terms like "state party" and "theocracy" to attack the ruling Islamists, whose supporters have denounced their critics as remnants of the Ben Ali era.

Yadh Ben Achour, a respected lawyer who led a group of people last year seeking to promote the objectives of the revolution, did not mince his words in an interview with daily La Presse at the end of August.

"We risk finding ourselves before long, in a dictatorship worse than that of (ousted president Zine El Abidine) Ben Ali, a theocratic dictatorship. We risk losing one of the revolution's greatest achievements, freedom of expression," he said.

One dispute feeding the growing political crisis is the government's controversial appointment of new directors to head state media firms, prompting their staff and opposition activists to accuse the ruling Ennahda party of interfering with the media.

Another is the trial of two artists who risk five years in jail for disturbing public order and attacking morals, after posting caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook, while Salafists behind numerous acts of violence go unpunished.

All week, newspapers have published editorials accusing the Islamists of seeking to strengthen their grip on power, instead of concentrating on drafting a new constitution, which has been heavily delayed by divisions within the coalition government.

"The government, with its dominant party, is bent on hegemony and has exceeded its prerogatives," Tunisian daily La Presse charged on Thursday.

"Tasked with moving the country forward and dealing with urgent situations, it is busy monopolising power," it added.

Le Quotidien, another daily, denounced what it called "a decadent strategy of the state party, in this case Ennahda, aimed at neutralising all its rivals for electoral purposes."

The ruling party has shrugged off the criticism, presenting itself as the only political force capable of leading the country and seeing behind the volley of accusations the remnants of Ben Ali's now-defunct party at work.

An informal political movement known as "Ekbes" ("Get a move on" in Arabic) that is close to the moderate Islamist party, has been organising protests in recent days, urging the government to "tighten the screw."

On Friday, it brought thousands onto the streets of the Kasbah in Tunis, the site of the government headquarters, calling for the media and political spheres to be purged of former regime figures and other "counter-revolutionaries."

A favourite target is Beji Caid Essebsi, a senior official during the first years of Ben Ali's rule who steered Tunisia in the aftermath of the revolution, whose Call of Tunisia party, launched in June, is gaining popularity.

"It's not logical that after the revolution the information should be in the hands of the enemies of the revolution," said Habib Ellouze, one of various Ennahda officials addressing Friday's rally, who accused journalists of "plotting."

Riadh Chaibi, another senior Ennahda official, promised a law banning the remnants of the deposed regime from Tunisia's political arena.

"The Call of Tunisia is the new RCD!" he told the demonstrators, referring to the party of former strongman Ben Ali.

"We will work with the National Constituent Assembly to adopt a law banning RCD members from political activities for 10 years," he added.

The opposition, meanwhile, accuses Ennahda of recruiting to key posts individuals with links to Ben Ali's clan, including Chedly Ayari, 79, who was appointed the new central bank governor in July.