TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisia's leading Islamist party announced Monday it is pulling out of a commission that is preparing the country for its first elections after the ouster of its longtime dictator in a popular revolt.
The pullout is the latest sign of tension between Tunisia's emerging political forces as they struggle to decide what the country will look like after decades of autocratic rule.
The commission was asked to prepare for elections for the constitutional assembly, which were postponed from July to October — a move angering the Islamist Ennahda Party.
Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi said the commission has "deviated" from its task and is trying to impose an agenda "without consultation or consensus" that could once again delay elections.
The head of the commission, respected jurist Yadh Ben Achour, said it would continue its work regardless of Ennahda's actions, but "we respect its opinion."
As one of the most organized forces in Tunisian society, the moderate Islamist party stood to benefit from earlier elections, as opposed to the more than 100 brand new political parties that haven't had time to establish support.
Ghannouchi added that many of the members of the High Commission for Political Reforms and Democratic Transition had been trying to demonize his party, warning of dire consequences if it came to power.
"Some are trying to sound alarms and present Ennahda like an ogre threatening the rights of women and tourism," he said, describing "a harassment seeking to exclude the movement or even set up new trials like those held by the Ben Ali regime against the Islamists."
Tunisia under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali prided itself on its secular ways and vigorously oppressed proponents of political Islam. With the popular uprising, though, Ghannouchi returned from exile and his banned party has reappeared.
The party will still contest the elections, but it no longer wants to be seen as part of the apparatus organizing future elections and politics, Ghannouchi said.
Ennahda also disagrees with an initiative by some committee members to normalize relations with Israel.
Most countries in the Arab world shun relations with the Jewish state, citing its occupation of Palestinian lands.
The world is closely watching Tunisia's halting steps toward a democratic transition, because its uprisings sparked a wave of popular revolt across the Arab world. With a small, largely educated and homogenous population, Tunisia is believed to have the best chances of becoming a prosperous democracy.