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Tunisia's ruling Islamists see elections in six months

By Patrick Markey and Tarek Amara

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's ruling Islamists, who have agreed to make way for a caretaker government, see elections within six months to put the country's political transition back on track after months of unrest, a senior party official said on Friday.

Nearly three years after an uprising toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, divisions between Islamists and the opposition over the political role of Islam have delayed a democratic process once seen as a model for the region.

Moderate Islamist party Ennahda and an opposition coalition agreed earlier this month for the government to step down to end political deadlock, form a temporary caretaker administration and set a date for parliamentary and presidential elections.

Ennahda agreed to resign three weeks after the start of the negotiations over the new government. Those talks begin on Wednesday, but both sides must still agree on finishing the new constitution, a vote date and decide on members of an electoral commission to oversee the ballot.

"There is a preliminary agreement among the political parties to hold elections in six months after the installation of the election committee," senior Ennahda official Ameur Larayedh told reporters. "There are some problems with the election commission composition, but we are working on that."

The small North African country, whose 2011 uprising against Ben Ali inspired Arab revolts elsewhere, has been in crisis since Islamist militants assassinated an opposition leader in July, setting off protests demanding that Ennahda step down.

Tunisia's post-uprising transition has been relatively peaceful compared with its neighbors, Egypt, whose army ousted an elected Islamist president, and Libya, where rival militias are threatening to tip the country back into war.

But the opposition - a coalition of Nida Tounes, whose ranks include former Ben Ali officials, and smaller leftist parties - fears Ennahda will delay handing over power after the next three weeks of negotiations.

The election date is likely to be one of the most sensitive issues in negotiations, according to the head of Tunisia's powerful UGTT labor union that brokered the dialogue.

"We are trying to reach a deal on this and other points," said Maghreb Republican Party leader Boussairi Bou Abdeli.

Ennahda won 40 percent of the seats in Tunisia's first post-Ben Ali vote to elect an assembly to write a new constitution. It has shared power in a coalition with two smaller secular parties as part of an initial transitional agreement.

The party's ascent opened fierce debate about the role of religion in politics in a country where many worried that rising Islamist influences might end up imposing strict Islamic law, curtailing liberal education and women's rights.

Facing street protests, Ennahda initially resisted opposition attempts to force the government to resign. But perhaps wary of the fate of Egypt's Islamist leader, Ennahda eventually accepted the idea of stepping aside.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Robin Pomeroy)

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