Tunisian PM raises possibility of vote delay

TUNIS Sun May 8, 2011 5:30pm EDT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's prime minister suggested Sunday that July elections for an assembly to draw up a new constitution could be delayed, potentially fuelling unease among anti-government protesters over the path to democracy.

The North African country has struggled to restore stability since a revolution in January ousted authoritarian ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired uprisings across the Arab world.

Police in Tunis used tear gas to break up a fourth day of protests by scores of youths who have returned to the streets, many of them deeply sceptical about the interim administration's promises to bring in democracy after the uprising.

Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi said in a state television interview that Tunisia still aimed to hold an election on July 24, but for the first time he suggested the ballot could happen later.

"If the reform committee says there would be technical difficulties that would be another probability to look at," Sebsi said.

The government still has to set up a promised independent electoral body to prepare for the ballot.

ISLAMIST MODERATES

Tension is growing in Tunisia in the countdown to the election and many in the country's secular establishment are unsettled by expectations that a moderate Islamist group banned under Ben Ali could do well.

The spark for the most recent protests was a warning from a former interior minister that there would be a coup d'etat if the Islamist group, Ennahda, won the vote.

Sebsi reiterated the government's condemnation of the comments and described them as irresponsible.

Protesters fear the interim administration will renege on its commitment to guide Tunisia toward democracy after decades of autocratic rule under Ben Ali.

Scores of protesters in the center of Tunis called Sunday for the resignation of Sebsi and his government, although the size of the demonstration was smaller than those on the three previous days.

Black-clad riot police fired teargas to push the protesters, some throwing stones, off the central Avenue Bourguiba.

The authorities -- who reject any suggestion there will be a coup -- responded to the protests by imposing an overnight curfew starting Saturday. They said it was to ensure the safety of citizens.

Some Tunisians condemn the renewed demonstrations and want to see a return to normality in the country of 10 million, where the turmoil and war in neighboring Libya are expected to cut economic growth to little over one percent this year.

"Those who are demonstrating are those from the lowest level who have nothing to lose," complained businessman Moez Hlcheri. "You can't have everything immediately. You have to work for it."

(Additional reporting by Matthew Tostevin, Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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