Tunisia's newly elected assembly gets to work

Tunisia's newly elected assembly held its inaugural meeting Tuesday, ready to start shaping the constitution and the democratic future of the country that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.

A moderate Islamist party, Ennahda (Renaissance), won the most seats in the Constituent Assembly, and it has announced a coalition with a liberal and left-of-center party to make up the interim government. The coalition holds a comfortable majority of 139 seats in the 217-member body.

Lawmakers were elected last month in Tunisia's first free vote — the first resulting from the Arab Spring protests.

Tunisian protesters drove out their longtime president in January, setting off revolts in other Arab countries. Tunisia's new assembly is being watched as an example amid violence in Egypt ahead of its elections and escalating tensions in Syria.

Tunisia has been spared the violent clashes of its North African and Arab neighbors, but there has been some continued unrest. Outside the assembly building in a suburb of Tunis, 1,000 people demonstrated Tuesday from dozens of different associations, many representing women calling for their rights to be guaranteed in the new constitution.

Under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia had some of the most progressive laws for women in the Arab world, something its secular elite fear might be lost under an Islamist party.

Ennahda, as well as its coalition members, has promised to maintain women's rights.

Newly elected Ennahda candidate Souad Abderrahim, an outspoken professional who does not were the traditional Islamic headscarf, was heckled Tuesday by demonstrators demanding that she resign.

Abderrahim raised a firestorm of criticism earlier by calling single mothers a “disgrace,” she later retracted her comments and described them as victims.

Also protesting were relatives of those killed and wounded in the monthlong uprising that began in December, calling for justice against the security forces.

“We will seek to ensure that the national constituent assembly will complete its tasks, write a new constitution for the country and call for new elections within a period that should not exceed one year,” said the statement signed late Monday by the new coalition.

The coalition will present the assembly its candidate for interim president, veteran rights activist Moncef Marzouki who heads the liberal Congress for the Republic Party.

He will then appoint a prime minister, Ennahda's number 2, Hammadi Jebali, and Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the Ettakatol Party as the leader of assembly.

The North African country of 10 million has been essentially a one-party state since it won its independence from France in 1956, yet it was able to organize a successful election accepted by all participants in just four months.

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