PARIS (Reuters) - Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who has pledged in the face of violent unrest to bow out in 2014, is prepared to hold parliamentary elections before then, his foreign minister, Kamel Morjane, said on Friday.
Morjane also commended the reaction of opposition leader Najib Chebbi to Thursday night promises by Ben Ali that a government of national unity including him was an option.
Interviewed on France’s Europe 1 radio, Morjane was asked if a coalition was on the cards.
“With a man like Chebbi and the behaviour that he showed yesterday, I believe it’s possible and even totally normal.”
Ben Ali, who has led Tunisia for more than 23 years, bowed to pressure from weeks of unrest and announced on television that he would step down in 2014. He also ordered police to stop shooting protesters and promised a free media.
“The president is a man of his word. He said it yesterday, he believes it and he will do it,” Morjane said.
On Friday at least 5,000 people gathered outside Tunisia’s interior ministry to demand Ben Ali’s immediate resignation, shouting slogans including: “Ben Ali, leave!” and “Ben Ali, thank you but that’s enough!”.
The president’s promises showed he was prepared also to have parliamentary elections before the presidential poll that would coincide with his 2014 departure, Morjane said.
“The president said it in a direct manner, since he decided the creation of a commission which will propose a revision of the electoral code,” said Morjane.
“He said there would be no more holding of presidential and legislative elections in parallel. In so doing, he accepted the principle of (legislative) elections before the presidential poll in 2014,” the minister said.
Tunisia’s protests have been watched closely in other countries in the Arab world with the potential for social unrest, especially after rises in world food prices, which were the cause of recent trouble in nearby Algeria.
The official death toll from several weeks of clashes with police was 23 civilians killed, but witness account and human rights groups put the figure significantly higher.
Morjane appealed for calm.
“What I really hope for now is that the union leadership behaves as is fit at this point ... that the demonstration is peaceful and responsible,” he said.
Asked about participation by religious parties in future elections, Morjane said that was a decision yet to be taken, and that for now, “It’s not allowed under our constitution”.