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Tunisia seeks new premier to escape political crisis

The IMF says a Dh6.5 billion loan to the Tunisian government is on hold until the 'political situation is clarified'.

TUNIS // Tunisian leaders began the search for a new prime minister today to try to lead the North African nation out of its gravest political crisis since an uprising that inspired a wave of Arab revolts two years ago.

Rached Ghannouchi, the powerful head of the main Islamist Ennahda party, said the group had not named anyone to replace Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who resigned yesterday, but that he expected a new government to emerge this week.

"We need a coalition government with several political parties and technocrats," Mr Ghannouchi told reporters after talks with secular President Moncef Marzouki.

Mr Jebali quit after his plan for an apolitical technocrat cabinet to prepare for elections failed. He had proposed it after the assassination of the opposition leader Chokri Belaid on February 6 shocked Tunisia and widened Islamist-secular rifts.

Eventually it was Mr Jebali's own Ennahda party that scuppered the idea, extending a political impasse that has cast a shadow over the North African state's fledgling democracy and ailing economy.

"The crisis deepens," ran the headline in the independent Assarih newspaper, which said Ennahda's efforts to keep its cabinet posts and the collapse of Mr Jebali's initiative had "returned the country to square one".

Tunisia began a transition to democracy after the peaceful overthrow of President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, electing a National Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution, and then forging a deal under which the moderate Ennahda agreed to share power with its secular rivals.

But disputes have delayed the constitution and the failure to tackle unemployment and poverty in a country that relies on tourism has dismayed many Tunisians and led to frequent unrest.

Negotiations on a $1.78 billion (Dh6.53bn) loan from the International Monetary Fund cannot be concluded amid the latest uncertainty.

"Once a new government is named, we will enquire about its intentions/mandate," an IMF spokeswoman, Wafa Amr, said. "Once the political situation is clarified, we'll assess how best to help Tunisia."

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