The Congress for the Republic, the party of the Tunisian president, has re-elected as secretary general an ex-minister who quit the government in June, amid simmering tensions with the ruling Islamist party.
The CPR announced early on Monday, at the end of its annual conference, that Mohammed Abbou, who resigned as administrative reform minister in June over obstacles in the fight against corruption, would remain head of the party.
The secular, center-left party to which President Moncef Marzouki belongs, partners the moderate Islamist party Ennahda in Tunisia's ruling three-party coalition, alongside Ettakatol, another center-left grouping.
Ennahda dominates the alliance, after winning the largest share of votes in legislative elections last October.
Tensions between the CPR and Ennahda resurfaced on Friday when Marzouki, at the start of the conference, strongly criticized the Islamists, prompting several top government officials with Ennahda to walk out, including Interior Minister Ali Larayedh.
“What complicates the situation is the growing feeling that our Ennahda brothers are working to control the administrative and political operations of the state,” the president said in a letter read out by one of his advisers.
“This behavior reminds us of the bygone era" of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali,” Marzouki added, condemning “the appointment of supporters (of the Ennahda party to key posts) whether or not they are qualified.”
Several Islamist ministers have since asked Marzouki to state clearly whether he supports the coalition or the opposition, while the Tunisian press seized on his speech to highlight the country's political discord.
“It was a major incident. It reveals the state of the Troika government, when even just recently it was proclaiming its unwavering unity,” Tunisian daily La Presse said in an editorial on Monday, adding: “The hardest is yet to come.”
The CPR’s reappointment as secretary general of Abbou, a 46-year-old lawyer who was jailed under the regime of Ben Ali, appears to reflect the political standoff between the CPR and Ennahda.
When he resigned, the former minister criticized the Tunisian premier, Ennahda’s Hamadi Jabali, for not doing enough in the fight against corruption.
Deep divisions within the coalition government have already emerged over the nature of the new constitution, due to have been drafted by October, but whose completion is now not expected until March.
The ruling Islamists are pushing for a pure parliamentary system, but the other parties want important powers to remain in the hands of the president. The delay is almost certain to set back next year's elections.
Ennahda has also come under fire from activists in recent weeks for interfering in the control of the media, for seeking to curtail women's rights and for failing to rein in Tunisia’s resurgent Salafist movement.
And Marzouki, himself a veteran human rights activist and dissident under Ben Ali, has been criticized for not resisting the Islamist party’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
The political program that the CPR was due to adopt at the three-day conference, elaborating its strategy ahead of planned elections next year and clarifying its direction, is due to be published later on Monday or on Tuesday.