Thousands of opposition activists protested in central Tunis on Wednesday demanding the resignation of Tunisia’s Islamist-led government, ahead of a national dialogue aimed at ending months of political deadlock.
The protesters gathered on central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, waving Tunisian flags and shouting slogans such as: “The people want the fall of the regime,” “Get out” and “Government of traitors, resign!”
The demonstration took place amid a heavy security presence, with armored vehicles and anti-riot police deployed along the central Tunis boulevard, which was the epicenter of the January 2011 revolution that ousted former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
A separate pro-government protest called for 9:00 am by the League for the Protection of the Revolution had failed to materialize by midday.
Wednesday’s demonstration came just hours before the start of a planned national dialogue between the ruling Islamist party al-Nahda and the opposition.
Mediators hope the talks will bring an end to the political paralysis gripping the country since the assassination of opposition MP Mohammed Brahmi this July, this also marks a crucial step in the country’s democratic transition.
Tunisian officials say they expect Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh to announce his commitment to resign ahead of the talks.
Parliament speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar said he expected the prime minister to announce his commitment to resign, allowing negotiations between Tunisia’s bitterly divided factions.
“In principle, the government will announce its commitment to respecting the roadmap and its resignation within a few weeks,” he said in a televised interview on Tuesday evening.
According to a political roadmap drawn up by mediators, the national dialogue will lead within three weeks to the formation of a new caretaker cabinet of technocrats.
Negotiators will also have one month to adopt a new constitution, electoral laws and a timetable for fresh elections, key milestones in the democratic transition which has effectively been blocked by wrangling between the Islamists, their coalition allies and the opposition.
Larayedh has previously stated that he would step down only once a new constitution has been adopted.
A senior member of al-Nahda charged on Tuesday that the opposition was preparing to “destroy” the negotiations between the two sides by staging anti-government protests.
Since triumphing in the parliamentary elections in October 2011, al-Nahda has been weakened by accusations that they have failed to fix Tunisia’s sluggish economy and prevent attacks by Islamist militants.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, the National Guard clashed with militants in the central Sidi Bouzid region with fatalities on both sides, police and hospital sources told AFP.
“At least two members of the National Guard and two from the other camp were killed,” an interior ministry official told AFP.
A hospital source in the Sidi Ali Ben Aoun locality, where the gun battle took place, said three policemen were killed.