The stand-off over the future of the government led by the moderate Islamists leaves public opinion more divided than at any time since the revolution. Eileen Bryne reports from Tunis
Tunisians united in patriotism, divided over the country's future
TUNIS // It is a good time to be a seller of flags in the Tunisian capital. The national flag is not just waved by protesters in a sea of bright red at opposition and pro-government rallies. It is worn as a face veil by some women protesters, or as a bandanna tied around the head of small children carried proudly on their fathers' shoulders, in an early lesson in citizenship.
Both sides in the political crisis that has lasted for three weeks now, mobilising tens of thousands on to the streets, are united in their patriotism. But the stand-off over the future of the government led by the moderate Islamists of Ennahda has left public opinion more divided than at any time since the revolution which ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
Outside the parliament building in the capital's Bardo district, opponents of the government gathered once more last week to demand the creation of a new, non-party "government of national salvation". This diverse new opposition movement also wants the 217-member constituent assembly, elected in late 2011 to write a new constitution, to be dissolved.
The opposition rally on Tuesday ostensibly marked Tunisia's National Women's Day, on the anniversary of progressive legislation on women's rights passed in 1956, under the first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba. Demonstrators included middle-class professionals, seasoned leftist activists, and young people who reject having a religious party in government. Some protesters said they longed for the more authoritarian days of Bourguiba, or even for the return of Ben Ali, who has been convicted of the killing of protesters among other crimes.
Some of their vocabulary harked back to the Ben Ali era. "These Islamists of Ennahda are terrorists, the proof of it is these recent attacks," said Hajer Drime, 40, a housewife who attended the rally with her husband, referring to two assassinations this year of opposition leaders that have shocked Tunisians.
The shooting in February of leftist politician Chokri Belaid was followed, on July 25, by the killing of another leftist leader, Mohammed Brahmi, who was also an outspoken critic of political Islam.
In reaction to Brahmi's murder, about 60 assembly members resigned and joined calls for its dissolution. Brahmi's assassination was followed four days later by the killing of eight soldiers in the western Chambi Mountain region, near the border with Algeria. Three of their bodies were mutilated by the attackers - apparently members of an armed Islamist group.
For many Tunisians, this grim news added weight to arguments that the Ennahda-led government had failed to control the growing influence of Islamic militancy in poorer neighbourhoods. The opposition says it has no confidence that the government intends to hold free and fair presidential and legislative elections by the end of the year as it has repeatedly pledged to do.
A driving force in this new opposition alignment is the Nida Tounes (Tunisian Call) party, created last year by Beji Caid Sebsi, who served as prime minister for less than a year in 2011 and held posts in Ben Ali's ruling party. Nida Tounes seeks to rehabilitate a "Bourguibist" tradition of an efficiently run secular state. For its critics, the party represents an attempt by the "old regime", with its networks of cronyism and authoritarian aspirations, to make a comeback. The assembly had been drafting a law to exclude former senior office holders in Ben Ali's ruling party from standing for election.
The country's economy is still struggling to return to pre-revolutionary growth levels, and its security forces are overstretched as they attempt to tackle extremist Islamist groups and organised criminals muscling in on a cross-regional trade in weapons looted from Libya.
For Michael Ayari, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, "the dissolution of the assembly would be a mistake" with a new constitution close to completion.
"There are non-democratic forces in each camp, and what is needed is an alliance between the democrats in each camp," Mr Ayari said.
That would keep the country's democratic transition on track without either side resorting to some covert alliance with elements in the security services who favour an authoritarian solution, he said.
Ennahda traces its ideological origins back to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and Tunisia's new opposition alignment has drawn encouragement from the ousting of Mohammed Morsi as Egyptian president on July 3.
At counter-demonstrations organised by Ennahda, slogans have referred to the "legitimacy" of the elected government and assembly. Ennahda's leader Rached Ghannouchi has said would-be "coupsters" sought to destabilise the country that inspired the revolts in other Arab countries in 2011, to carry out a "counter-revolution" that would reverse steps taken towards democracy.
At a news conference on Thursday, Mr Ghannouchi argued that it would be irresponsible for the government to resign when it was so close to organising elections that could be overseen by thousands of observers to ensure transparency. Tunisia was a "cultured" nation that likes "peace and order, and dislikes anarchy", he said.
The opposition's announcement on Tuesday that it would hold protests in provincial towns to oust regional governors regarded as Ennahda loyalists would fail to find public support, he added.
Ennahda is offering to take more parties into a wider government, but has turned down opposition demands for a non-party prime minister to head an entirely new government of "technocrats".
As both domestic and international mediators attempted through the past week to bring the two sides to direct talks, Wissem, a woman who manages a biscut company manager, had travelled to the capital from the town of Kairouan, in a bus laid on to boost numbers at Ennahda's own Women's Day rally on Tuesday.
As impassioned speakers addressed flag-carrying Ennahda supporters, she said she had voted for Ennahda in 2011 but would not be doing so again.
"These deaths during Ramadan were so shocking. We Tunisians are not used to that kind of thing," she said. "I wouldn't want to see Ennahda eliminated from the public stage. They are a force out there, among ordinary people. But if the government doesn't show better results soon, there has to be a change."