* Premier and five ministers step down over three days
* Political vacuum could force military to step in
* Street protests seen continuing
By Richard Valdmanis
TUNIS, March 2 (Reuters) - A wave of resignations from Tunisia’s caretaker government, in power since the president was overthrown in January, has raised the risk the military will take over the country’s faltering transition.
Six high-profile members of the interim government have stepped down since Sunday in the worst political crisis in North Africa’s most developed state since veteran leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted on Jan. 14.
Analysts said the departures had left the government charged with preparing elections to replace Ben Ali teetering on the brink of collapse, and have cast doubt over expectations polls would be held by mid-July.
“A military takeover of the election process is a likely scenario,” said Mohammed El-Katiri, Middle East analyst for Eurasia Group. “The military has said that their job is to protect the revolution. If the government falls, they will need to fill the vacuum,” he said.
Tunisia’s revolutionaries are generally opposed to allowing the military to oversee the elections process, which they believe must be run by civilians to maintain its legitimacy after two decades of repressive leadership.
But its transition is lagging the one taking place in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11 in a Tunisia-inspired uprising and handed power directly to the army. It has already set a short timetable for polls.
“It wouldn’t be a welcome development, but if the members of civil and political society are unable to come up with a solution that can move the process forward in Tunisia, the Egypt model may be the best and only available solution,” said Slaheddin Jourchi, an independent political analyst in Tunis.
He added, however, that if the government were able to survive the wave of resignations it could open the door to a broader spectrum of opposition voices when the ministers are replaced, and lead to a more broadly-supported transition.
Tunisian interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi resigned on Sunday following deadly street protests against his ties to Ben Ali. Five other ministers stepped down in the days that followed, including two members of the opposition.
A source close to the government told Reuters that the new prime minister, Beji Caid Sebsi, would this week announce the creation of a representative council, to be elected and charged with rewriting the constitution.
That move — a step toward preparing legislative and presidential polls — could relieve some pressure on the government from its opponents but it was not clear if it would be enough for it to survive.
Tunisia has been struggling to restore stability since Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia after a wave of anti-government protests.
The revolution has provided the inspiration for uprisings in other parts of the Arab world, but Tunisia has since suffered outbreaks of violence and huge protests that have put pressure on the interim government.
Analysts said the protests were likely to continue despite the resignations, fuelled by a combination of frustration over the slow pace of change since Ben Ali’s departure, and by the involvement of suspected Ben Ali loyalists seeking to destabilize the transition.
The ministers who resigned in recent days included Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, the regional development minister, and Ahmed Brahim, the higher education minister.
Both are opposition figures who were brought into the government after Ben Ali’s overthrow.
“I am worried that the political void could pave the way for the military to take control,” Chebbi told reporters.
Chebbi stepped down after the prime minister told the existing government its members would not be permitted to stand in legislative or presidential elections, a source close to him told Reuters. A spokesman for the premier’s office was not immediately available to comment. (Editing by Jon Boyle)