Tunisia's political crisis entered a new phase Sunday with an announcement that Cabinet ministers of the president's own party are quitting the governing coalition, which could force the ruling Islamists to compromise with the opposition.
Two years ago Tunisia threw off decades of dictatorship, sparking the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa. But it is now facing its worst political crisis since then following the assassination of a prominent opposition figure last week.
Many blamed the government's negligence, if not complicity, for the assassination, and days of rioting followed that have only just subsided. A political solution to the crisis remains elusive and the question remains whether Tunisia can avoid the kind of political chaos wracking its neighbors.
Veteran observers of Tunisia's political scene caution that the nation's well-earned reputation as a stable bastion of moderation risks being put to the test, if the ruling Ennahda party of moderate Islamists mishandles its response to Wednesday's assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid.
"Tunisians can live without food, but they can't live without stability and calm," said Ali Dkhil, a Tunis-based journalist and long-time political observer.
The killing of Belaid — who carried out the shooting remains unknown — was the culmination of months of deadlock between the opposition and the governing coalition of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party and two secular parties.
Belaid, as well as many others in the opposition, alleged that the Islamists were relying on hired thugs to harass political figures they disagreed with, and negotiations to expand the ruling coalition had hit a deadlock.
The coalition's failure to stem the country's economic crisis and stop the often-violent rise of hardline Salafi Muslims had also drawn fierce criticism, prompting the call to broaden the governing coalition.
Following the assassination, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali offered the compromise long sought by the opposition and said he would form a government of technocrats unconnected to political parties, to see the country through the crisis and to new elections. However, his party rejected his plan, saying they had been elected by the people and should continue to rule — highlighting the divisions not just between the government and the opposition, but within the governing party itself.
The announcement Sunday that Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki's secular party is quitting the coalition government in anger at Ennahda's handling of the country's crisis might in the end actually strengthen officials such as Jebali seeking a compromise, said North Africa analyst Riccardo Fabiani of the London-based Eurasia Group.
"Now Ennahda no longer has a government coalition to kick out Jebali," Fabiani said, adding that as the other parties quit the coalition, that leaves the technocratic option as the only alternative. "Now Jebali has the upper hand. He's even stronger."
Fabiani warned, however, that Ennahda, which he called "the most moderate Islamic party in the Arab world," might radicalize if it is pushed out of power and does poorly in upcoming elections.
"Ennahda has moderated, but if they're out of government the hardliners of the party could play a different game," he said. "This could stir up increased tension on the street and lead to more violence."
Since its election, Ennahda has worked with other secular parties and compromised with the opposition on issues such as not enshrining Islamic law in the constitution currently being written. Now, however, there are growing signs of divisions within the party and fears that the hardline elements might be backing the groups carrying out violence.
"We're at an impasse," said Moncef Nasri, a Tunis writer and journalist. "All parties have to cooperate to create a clear path out of this very serious situation." But he said he is confident that Tunisia will pull back from the brink, as it has done repeatedly in the years since its so-called Jasmine Revolution.
"It's because of our history, our cosmopolitan culture," Nasri said. "Tunisia has always welcomed people from all faiths and cultures."
After three days of street violence, the capital Tunis was relatively quiet Sunday, under the watchful eye of riot police.
The assassination of Belaid unleashed pockets of pillaging and unrest on Saturday, including an attack by 80 youths armed with stones and clubs on a police station and a second security post in Zaghouan, 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Tunis, the official TAP news agency reported. To the south, in the town of Kebili, 60 people, mainly youths, attacked the governing Ennahda party offices. The extent of that damage was not immediately known.
Associated Press reporters Oleg Cetinic and Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunis contributed to this report.