Tunisian union head mediates in political standoff

TUNIS Wed Aug 21, 2013 11:47am EDT

Hussein Abassi, head of Tunisia's UGTT union federation, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis August 16, 2013. REUTERS/Anis Mili

Hussein Abassi, head of Tunisia's UGTT union federation, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis August 16, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Anis Mili

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's powerful UGTT trade union federation sought to mediate in the country's political crisis on Wednesday, consulting the secular opposition on its proposals for new elections before meeting with the ruling Islamists on Thursday.

UGTT Secretary General Hussein Abassi, whose million-strong federation gives him influence outside the feuding political camps, met leaders of the "Salvation Front" of opposition parties to inform them of recent overtures from the government.

He was originally also scheduled to meet with Rached Ghannouchi, chairman of the governing Ennahda party, on Wednesday, but the meeting was postponed a day with no official explanation.

"Things are still difficult," Abassi told journalists after meeting the parties demanding Ennahda resign. "The opposition is sticking to its demand to dissolve the government and form a caretaker cabinet."

Ziad Lakhdher, a leader of the Popular Front party, said Abassi had informed the meeting of Ennahda's latest offer for a government of national unity led by the present Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh. "We reject this categorically," he said.

Tunisia's opposition has stepped up its pressure on Ennahda in recent weeks, angered by the murders of two leftist leaders this year and emboldened by the popular protest that led to the fall of Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July.

With no powerful military to intervene like in Egypt, the two sides are locked in a political standoff punctuated by mass street rallies of their supporters and a series of real and rumored contacts among envoys seeking a path to consensus.

"GET OUT" CAMPAIGN

Reacting to the mounting pressure, Ghannouchi unexpectedly flew to Paris last week to meet Beji Caid Essebsi, head of the largest opposition party Nidaa Tounes, who was on a visit there. He then held initial talks on Monday with Abassi.

Several opposition parties plan to call another round of street rallies this weekend in what they call their "degage" ("get out") campaign, using the same term chanted by protesters against former strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The opposition accuses Ennahda of mismanaging the economy, ignoring violent Salafis trying to impose their Islamist rules on more secular Tunisians and delaying completion of a new constitution that was supposed to be ready last October.

It also says Ennahda, which won 41 percent of seats in the October 2011 vote for the constituent assembly, was supposed to be only a transitional leadership, but has filled many state jobs with Islamists as if it were a fully elected government.

Tunisia is due to hold new elections once the constitution is completed, but the opposition parties demand that Ennahda resigns before that because they say the Islamists cannot be trusted to oversee an impartial vote.

Abassi, who dislikes media comparisons of his Tunisian General Labour Union's power broker role with that of the army in Egypt, is not exactly an uninterested party in the negotiations. His UGTT has also called for Ennahda to quit.

That demand has become so widespread that even Ettakatol, one of the two smaller secular parties governing in the Ennahda-led coalition government, came out in favor of it on Sunday.

But Abassi does not support a second demand by many opposition parties for the slow-moving constituent assembly to also be dissolved, arguing it should instead be given a short deadline to wrap up its work before elections can be held.

(Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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