TUNIS, Tunisia - Thousands of the ruling Islamist party's supporters marched in the capital Saturday in response to rising criticism about Tunisia's direction two years after its revolution.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has run afoul of his own governing party, Ennahda, by announcing he would seek to form a Cabinet of technocrats after leftist opposition politician Chokri Belaid was shot dead outside his home on Feb. 6 - setting off anti-government riots around the country. Saturday's demonstration was a show of support for the party in the face of Jebali's initiative.
Along Avenue Bourguiba, some demonstrators held up Ennahda flags adorned with a blue dove, crescent moon and red star. The thoroughfare was an epicenter of protests that forced longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in January 2011, triggering a revolution that set off the so-called Arab Spring throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
"Ennahda is open to all Tunisians. It is the crucible where Islamists and modernists converge because it's an open and democratic movement. ... It represents the spinal column that holds Tunisia together," Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi told the demonstrators outside a theater.
Ennahda, a well-organized movement, was repressed under Ben Ali's secular rule and capitalized on the revolutionary fervor to win subsequent elections.
Some of Saturday's demonstrators were bused in from Tunisia's more rural and impoverished central and western regions, and a smattering of Salafist militants and other radicals took part. Many insisted that Ennahda won the elections and that respect for democracy was paramount to safeguard the revolution.
"I am here to support the legitimacy of the ballot boxes and condemn violence - wherever it comes from. I am with democracy," said demonstrator Latifa Zayani.
Jebali said Friday that talks between the opposition and the government would continue Monday on ways to defuse the political crisis. Only a day earlier, he had announced that he would seek to form a government of technocrats by Saturday - or resign. His initiative has backing of the opposition but has put him on a collision course with Ennahda, which dominates the government and insists on sticking with a Cabinet of political figures.
The crisis swelled after hundreds of thousands of people turned up at the funeral of Belaid, putting pressure on the Ennahda-led administration that was widely blamed for creating the violent environment that resulted in his death, as well as not solving persistent economic problems.