Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, said a new government is expected to be announced in two or three days, as the country that kicked off the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring teeters on the edge of a political crisis.
"We are on the road to an understanding," he said. "We are moving toward forming a government of national union."
Last week's assassination of leftist lawyer Chokri Belaid resulted in days of rioting after many people held the government responsible for his death, at a time when negotiations to widen the governing coalition were deadlocked. The assassination was the culmination of weeks of rising political violence in which many opposition parties had been attacked by thugs.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, also of Ennahda, proposed a government of technocrats to lead the country and resolve the crisis, in tacit acknowledgement that the coalition of Ennahda and two secular parties had not succeeded in tackling the country's economic woes or the rising violence, including that by hardline Muslims known as Salafis.
Jebali's move was hailed by the opposition, but rejected by his own party, and Ghannouchi's latest statement suggests Ennahda has come up with an alternative of its own that would keep it in control of key ministries, such as interior, foreign affairs and justice.
"A government of technocrats has no future because the political parties have rejected this initiative," said Ghannouchi. "For this reason, Jebali has returned to the parties to form a consensus government."
Jebali's office could not confirm Ghannouchi's assertion that the technocrat option had been abandoned. The prime minister had earlier stated that if his new apolitical government was not accepted by the general assembly, he would resign.
After announcing it had quit the government yesterday, secular coalition member Congress for the Republic said it would wait a week before leaving. One of its conditions for remaining has been a change in the ministers of justice and foreign affairs.
In the interview, Ghannouchi hinted that perhaps the party might relinquish some ministries.
After Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, 2011, they held their first free elections and handed Ennahda a plurality of seats in a new assembly tasked with writing the constitution.
The constitution was meant to be completed by now and new elections set for a permanent legislature, but the parties have become deadlocked amid increasing dissatisfaction with Ennahda.
Jebali said a nonpartisan government was the only way to resolve the crisis, finish the constitution and set up new elections, but observers say many in Ennahda fear losing power.
The funeral of Belaid, whose left-wing Popular Front coalition of parties had few seats in the assembly, saw a massive outpouring of support that was widely interpreted as a sign of growing popular dislike for the Islamists.
"We have condemned and we still condemn this crime, which is a crime against humanity, against our revolution, our national unity," asserted Ghannouchi. "It constitutes a real danger for stability."
There has been no information about who might be behind the attack, which Ghannouchi only vaguely ascribed to "counterrevolutionary forces inside and outside the country."
Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia after the fall of Ben Ali after almost a quarter-century of exile, said that after their peaceful revolution, Tunisians are seeking a modern, democratic state that could be a model for the region.
"There is no doubt we are for a civil state and not a religious government that rules in the name of God. The only legitimacy we accept is the one from the ballot boxes and popular will," he said, adding that he is seeking a constitution that defends human rights and guarantees equality between the sexes.