The trouble began when the secretary general of the Islamist Ennahda party likened post-Ben Ali Tunisia to a new caliphate.
Tunisian secularists, Islamists squabble over 'caliphate' comment
TUNIS // Partisan squabbling is usually considered a drag on democracy. In Tunisia, it is arguably a sign of democracy's advance.
Talks on forming a coalition government halted briefly this week after a secular party questioned the motives of its moderate Islamist partner amid intense jockeying for power.
The trouble began when Le Maghreb, a Tunisian newspaper, reported that Hamadi Jebali, secretary general of the Islamist Ennahda party and pick for interim prime minister, had likened post-Ben Ali Tunisia to a new caliphate.
The secularist Ettakatol promptly suspended talks on forming a government, sending Ennahda scrambling to reassure its partners and public opinion of its commitment to democracy.
While too many such upsets could distract Tunisia's new leaders from making badly needed reforms, they also signal a break with the moribund politics of the toppled autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
"These parties now have constituencies that they must support," said Michael Willis, Director of St Anthony's College Middle East Centre at Oxford University. "It's part of normal democratic politics."
Since protests drove Ben Ali from power in January, other Arab countries swept up in the ensuing wave of revolt have looked to Tunisia as an example of democratic change.
National assembly elections last month handed first place - but not a majority - to Ennahda, long persecuted by Ben Ali's regime.
The national assembly is to write a new constitution, while the next government must craft reforms to relieve economic malaise and clean up state institutions.
Ennahda is now hammering out that government with the secularist Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, known by its Arabic name, Ettakatol.
All three parties scored votes partly by pledging to work together. Ennahda, however, remains dogged by claims that its moderate rhetoric masks a more radical agenda.
This week those fears helped to trigger that temporary political breakdown.
Ennahda has pledged to uphold progressive laws on women's rights and not to push for new constitutional articles on religion.
"Mr Jebali was talking to Islamists in the audience, people who think about the caliphate," said Said Ferjani, a member of Ennahda's political bureau. "Mr Jebali said that if they want a caliphate, it's what's happening now: democracy."
Ettakatol has accepted that explanation and agreed to restart talks, said Abdellatif Abid, a co-founder of the party and member of its political bureau.
"However, we're still afraid of double-talk," Mr Abid said. "We're ready at any moment to break off talks if Ennahda says such things again."
Mr Abid said Mr Jebali's remarks prompted Ettakatol's decision to suspend talks. Mr Ferjani, however, suggested other motives.
"In the heat of talks, they wanted to score points," he said. "It was putting pressure more than anything else."
Despite willingness to work with Ennahda, Ettakatol remains a secularist party, Mr Willis said. "This may be a case of Ettakatol wanting to reassure its base that it will keep Ennahda in check."
Competition has instensified for top posts in the coming government, with both Ettakatol and the CPR claiming the presidency.
"We're still insisting that Mr Ben Jaafar be president of the republic," Mr Abid said, referring to Ettakatol's leader, Mustapha Ben Jaafar. The party also wants "a respectable number" of ministries, he said.
In years past, such demands were unthinkable.
For three decades after Tunisia's independence from France in 1956, president Habib Bourguiba maintained a one-party state before gingerly allowing opposition parties to operate.
However, both Mr Bourguiba and his successor, Ben Ali, sidelined those parties with harassment and rigged elections. Governance consisted largely of diktats rubber-stamped by the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD).
After Ben Ali's removal the RCD was dissolved and its leaders barred from politics for the next 10 years, opening the field to new players.
The current talks could stretch into next week, Mr Ferjani said. For now, it is unclear exactly who will wear which hat.
Mr Jebali is widely considered the favourite for the prime minister slot. Mr Ben Jaafar will have a top post, according to Mr Ferjani, suggesting that he could head the national assembly in the event that the presidency goes to Moncef Marzouki, the CPR's head.
Meanwhile, the next cabinet could become increasingly colourful as new parties are folded in, said Mr Ferjani. "It's going to be a government of national unity, as we had expected."