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Independents take senior roles in Tunisia's new Islamist-led government

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh unveiled a new coalition government led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party on Friday, saying it would serve only until an election later in the year.

Larayedh replaced Hamadi Jebali, who resigned following the assassination of secular politician Chokri Belaid on February 6, which provoked the worst unrest in Tunisia since the uprising that overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali two years ago.

Ennahda's coalition partners - the center-left Ettakatol and President Moncef Marzouki's secular Congress for the Republic (CPR) - are the same parties as in the previous government.

"Our country needs national unity," Larayedh told a news conference, saying his government would not last beyond this year, with elections likely to be held in October or November.

"You must be patient. The road to democracy is long," said Larayedh, interior minister in the outgoing cabinet, which had struggled with Islamist-secular tensions as well as frequent popular unrest over unemployment and rising living costs.

Ennahda has ceded control of important ministries to independents in the new cabinet: career diplomat Othman Jarandi was named as foreign minister; Lotfi Ben Jedou interior minister; Rachid Sabbagh defense minister; and Nadhir Ben Ammou justice minister.

Elyess Fakhfakh of Ettakatol, an economist, keeps the finance portfolio.

Jarandi, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has strong ties with international bodies and the West.

Ben Jedou and Sabbagh are both judges. Ben Jedou took part in an investigation into the killing of dozens of young men during the "Jasmine Revolution" that toppled Ben Ali and inspired revolts against autocrats around the Arab world. Ben Ammou is a law professor.

DEEP RIFTS

Twelve members of Jebali's cabinet stay on, including Agriculture Minister Mohamed Ben Salem and Human Rights Minister Samir Dilou, who are both members of Ennahda, as well as Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk, an independent.

Larayedh tried but failed to induce other secular parties to join the coalition, one of whose main tasks will be to oversee polls in a transition process jolted by Belaid's assassination.

His killing, which the authorities blame on strict Salafi Muslim militants, provoked three days of sometimes violent protests and exposed deep rifts between ruling Islamists elected to power and liberals who fear the loss of hard-won freedoms.

Ennahda's leader Rached Ghannouchi told Reuters last month that any stable government in Tunisia must be a coalition between moderate Islamists and moderate secularists.

Ennahda, Ettakatol and CPR have governed in coalition since December 2011, following Tunisia's first free election for a 217-seat National Constituent Assembly, which is supposed to draft a new constitution for the post-Ben Ali era.

Disputes over the role of Islam in politics and society have delayed a document which must be approved before the election.

Political analysts said the appointment of independents to important ministries could reduce tensions between Islamists and secularists as elections approached.

"The appointments will reassure the public and politicians and could lead to fewer disputes," Chedli Ben Rhouma of Maghreb newspaper told Reuters.

However Nejib Chebbi, one of the most prominent leaders of the secular opposition in Tunisia, told Reuters he doubted the independents appointed were neutral, and that he feared they were handpicked Ennahda supporters.

"This government is not a government of national consensus," he said.

IMF LOAN

Political turmoil in recent weeks has set back talks with the International Monetary Fund on a $1.78 billion loan and has prompted Standard and Poor's to lower its long-term foreign and local currency sovereign credit rating of Tunisia.

The government raised most fuel prices this week as part of a drive to cut subsidies and reduce a forecast 2013 budget deficit of 6 percent of gross domestic product.

The central bank warned last week that continuing political crisis would harm the economy, which relies heavily on tourism.

Tunisia's transition has been calmer than those in Egypt and Libya, but the struggle over Islam's place in government and society has emerged as a particularly divisive political issue.

Salafis, not all of whom espouse violence, want a broader role for religion in Tunisia, alarming secular elites who fear they will seek to impose their strict views at the expense of individual freedoms, women's rights and democracy.

Salafis prevented several concerts and plays from taking place in Tunisian cities last year, saying they violated Islamic principles. Salafis also ransacked the U.S. Embassy in September during worldwide Muslim protests over an Internet video.

Secular groups have accused the Ennahda-led government of a lax response to such attacks.

After Belaid's death, Jebali tried to restore calm by proposing an apolitical cabinet of technocrats to organize a parliamentary election, but resigned after opposition from within his own Ennahda party scuppered the plan.

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