Ali Larayedh, moderate Islamist heads new Tunisia govt

Ali Larayedh, the Islamist politician whose new government was approved by Tunisian lawmakers Wednesday, is seen as a moderate and a man of dialogue but who failed to forge the broad coalition he had sought.

Larayedh had vowed to head a government "for all Tunisians" when he was tasked with forming a cabinet last month and resolving a political crisis triggered by the February 6 assassination of leftist opposition leader Chokri Belaid.

But two weeks of negotiations failed to win over the three opposition parties that he had hoped would join his government, leaving him with the two secular parties allied to Ennahda, the ruling Islamists in the outgoing coalition.

But true to Larayedh's reputation for compromise, not only does his new team include the former coalition parties but also independents. And key portfolios, which were at the centre of a tug of war between Ennahda and the opposition -- went to independents.

Larayedh, 57, who was tortured under ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has belonged to Ennahda since it was founded in 1981. He was president of its consultative council in the early 1980s, before rising to head its politburo.

In October 2011, Ennahda triumphed in Tunisia's first free elections, 10 months after an uprising that toppled Ben Ali. It became the main party in the coalition, taking the key interior, foreign and justice ministries.

Larayedh, with his thick black moustache and glasses, was appointed head of the interior ministry, which for years had persecuted him and his party.

His achievements in government over the past 14 months have been mixed.

He has often been accused of complacency towards the rising threat of violence from Tunisia's hardline Salafists Muslims, who have been blamed for Belaid's murder.

In particular, he was criticised for not deploying enough security around the US embassy in Tunis last September, which was attacked by radical Islamist protesters.

But he has also been a thorn in the side of the Salafists, and repeatedly denounced by fugitive jihadist leader Abu Iyadh, who is suspected of organising the embassy attack.

Opposition leaders have praised Larayedh for being reasonable compared with other senior Islamists of his generation.

The former naval engineer, who is married and has three children, suffered under the secular regimes of Ben Ali and his predecessor, Tunisia's founding president Habib Bourguiba.

Arrested and sentenced to death in 1987, he was pardoned along with other Islamists on death row when Ben Ali seized power months. But he was rearrested in 1990 and eventually jailed for 15 years, 13 of which he spent in isolation.

The Islamists were repressed during Ben Ali's reign, and Larayedh was tortured in prison like many of his colleagues in Ennahda.

"I almost died several times in the jails of the interior ministry. But I mark the difference between that period and now. The revolution came to advance and establish a transitional justice and not to seek vengeance," he has said.