Tunisia's Marzouki wants Iran to help stop Syria's 'nightmare'

NEW YORK Mon Sep 23, 2013 7:57pm EDT

Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki hold a joint news conference with France's President Francois Hollande (not pictured) in Tunis July 4, 2013. REUTERS/Anis Mili

Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki hold a joint news conference with France's President Francois Hollande (not pictured) in Tunis July 4, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Anis Mili

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki on Monday urged Iran to help broker a political solution to the devastating civil war in Syria that has killed more than 100,000 people.

"We have to stop this; this is the main problem: find and reach a political solution. I hope Iran now with President (Hassan) Rouhani would help. We have to put the pressure on our friends all over the world, but the nightmare of the Syrian people must stop," Marzouki told Reuters on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran, crushed demonstrations demanding democracy in 2011 and, while losing territory, has withstood a full-blown uprising supported by Arab states and the West.

A sarin gas attack near Damascus on August 21, which the United States says killed over 1,400 people, many of them children, has added urgency to the U.N. meeting this year.

The United States and Russia have agreed to a framework for eliminating Syrian chemical weapons, but moves to get a U.N. Security Council resolution enforcing the deal still face hurdles as the two nations disagree sharply on how to end the war.

SPRING ELECTIONS

Tunisia is the small North African country whose overthrow of an autocratic president gave birth to the Arab Spring protest movement which saw regimes in Egypt and Libya toppled. It is now struggling with its transition to democracy after two political assassinations of secular opposition leaders this year.

Marzouki met with business executives on Monday in between diplomatic meetings and tried to allay concerns about Tunisia's political and economic transition in the hopes of attracting new investment.

The coalition government in Tunisia, led by a troika of the moderate Islamist ruling party, Ennahda, and two smaller secularist opposition parties, is working toward writing a new constitution with the goal of holding fresh elections. Marzouki has previously never discussed the timing for a vote.

"My main objective is to have this election, let's say March/April because Tunisia badly needs to have a stable government," said Marzouki.

After the assassination in July, the second killing of an opposition leader by suspected Islamist militants this year, Ennahda came under mounting pressure and street protests from an opposition emboldened by events in Egypt, where the military overthrew the Islamist president the same month.

A National Assembly writing the country's constitution had almost completed its work before it was suspended a month ago over the political crisis.

Marzouki said that the assassinations set back efforts and seemed timed to disrupt the transition to a new government.

"I must confess that I am afraid once again we could have something like this for a time to come," Marzouki said.

Last week Ennahda and its leader, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, cautiously agreed to participate in talks to design a plan for stepping down from power and allow a caretaker administration before new elections.

The transition suffered a blow on Monday when Ennahda rejected the plan, throwing the process into doubt, and deepening a confrontation with its secular opponents.

Ennahda had sought to appease worries that it could impose a strict Islamist agenda impinging on liberal education and women's rights. Critics say Ennahda has mismanaged the economy and secular opposition politicians accused the party of tolerating the Islamist militants it blamed for the killings.

Marzouki insisted an election law would be in place to ensure a free and fair vote and that he would invite observers from the United Nations and elsewhere to observe.

But he remained sober in his view of the future for Tunisia, which is hoping to attract more businesses beyond its traditional base in tourism. The economy has struggled with a big external deficit because of falling tourism income.

"So we have to be very careful, because once again, we feel like we are the last hope of the Arab Spring, and that if Tunisia fails, it will fail everywhere and this would lead to chaos."

(Reporting By Daniel Bases; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)