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Published: Friday December 13, 2013 MYT 8:35:02 PM
Updated: Friday December 13, 2013 MYT 8:35:50 PM

Tunisia's Islamists, opposition to name premier

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's ruling Islamists and their opponents were set to name a prime minister on Friday to head a caretaker administration until elections next year that would put the nation's post-revolt transition back on track.

Three years after a wave of protests against autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali inspired Arab uprisings elsewhere, Tunisia is seeking to end a crisis in which disputes over the role of Islam in politics have threatened its new democracy.

The relatively moderate ruling Islamist Ennahda party, which has met stiff opposition from some of its secular rivals, has agreed to resign once politicians decide on a caretaker cabinet, complete a new constitution and set a date for elections.

A deal brokered by Tunisia's powerful UGTT labour movement on Thursday promised to end weeks of wrangling over who should be interim prime minister, though none has been publicly named.

A leading candidate for the post, 92-year-old Mustapha Filali backed out of the race on Friday. "I am not ready to accept such a huge responsibility, mainly because of my advanced age," the former cabinet minister told local Mosaique FM radio.

Ennahda and opposition groups were due to meet again later on Friday to settle who should form the non-political cabinet.

The UGTT had set a Saturday deadline for rival factions to name a prime minister. Among the potential candidates are Ahmed Adhoum, a judge and former minister, economist Radhi Meddeb, and Habib Essid, a former interior minister, party officials said.

Tunisia has fared better than two North African neighbours that also unseated their leaders. Egypt's elected Islamist president is in jail after the military ousted him, and Libya is struggling to control the militias that fought Muammar Gaddafi.

Tunisia, whose strong secular tradition has collided with the political power of Ennahda and the ambitions of Islamist militants, has nevertheless seen less of the violent unrest troubling Egypt and Libya. It has kept strong ties with former colonial ruler France and relies heavily on European tourism.

Its political landscape is also dominated by two men who say elections are the best way forward: Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, a former Ben Ali-era official who now leads the main secular opposition party, Nida Tounes.

But the protracted political crisis has hurt the economy and prospects of generating prosperity in the nation where a street vendor set himself on fire nearly three years ago in a gesture of despair that ignited a flame of revolt across the Arab world.

In the two years since Ennahda gained office after Tunisia's first free elections, political dissension has centred on how the role of Islam should be formulated in the new constitution.

The debate has unfolded against the backdrop of attacks by Islamist militants, some linked to al Qaeda, who have exploited the chaos in nearby Libya to gain weapons and training. They have assassinated two secular opposition leaders this year.

Those killings, along with concerns of foreign lenders about Tunisia's budget deficit, have increased pressure on politicians to break their deadlock and reset the transition process.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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