TUNIS Tunisia's powerful labor union proposed a timetable on Tuesday to end the country's political deadlock, calling for the Islamist-led government to step down in three weeks and make way for a caretaker administration to oversee elections.
The small North African country whose 2011 overthrow of an autocratic president began the "Arab Spring" revolts has been in crisis for weeks, with secular opponents demanding the Islamist-led coalition government resign immediately.
Angered by the assassinations of two of its leaders and emboldened by Egypt's army-backed ousting of an Islamist president, Tunisia's opposition held protests against the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. The government agrees it will step down, but wants guarantees of a fair handover.
The UGTT labor movement negotiating between the two sides said the new proposal calls for the government to resign in three weeks, after the start of new negotiations. A date for elections would be set during those three weeks of talks.
"We will hand the proposal to the parties involved. They should give a response in 48 hours. If that works out, then dialogue could start at the weekend," a union official told Reuters.
But in a sign of the likely political wrangling ahead, Ennahda officials held back from immediately accepting the initiative. It has said in the past that it could step down in four weeks if the new constitution is finished and other guarantees are in place.
"We are studying the proposed initiative, and initially express reservation on a number of points which will be discussed," Ennahda said in statement.
There was no immediate response from the opposition parties.
Initial talks between the sides fell apart and the unrest has threatened to delay the path to elections in a country that had been seen as the most promising example for young democracies that followed revolts in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.
Divisions between Tunisia's Islamists and their secular opponents have widened since the uprising that ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a revolt that triggered unrest across the Arab world.
Tunisia's transition since that revolt has been relatively peaceful, with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party sharing power with smaller secular parties.
But tensions have increased in the nation of 11 million people since an opposition leader was killed in July, just months after another secular figure was murdered by gunmen who authorities say were tied to radical Islamists.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)