TUNIS (AFP) - Tunisia's political rivals agreed on Saturday on a timetable for the unpopular Islamist-led ruling coalition to quit and be replaced by a government of independents, aiming to end a festering political crisis.
The Islamist Ennahda party and opposition groups in the country that gave birth to the Arab Spring signed a roadmap aimed at creating a new government within three weeks.
Saturday's deal, signed in the presence of politicians and media, was brokered to end a simmering two-month crisis sparked by the assassination in July of opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi.
The document, drawn up by four mediators, foresees the nomination of an independent prime minister by the end of next week, who would then have two weeks to form a cabinet.
It says that after the first day of national dialogue, "the government will resign with a delay not exceeding three weeks".
One of the leaders of Ennahda, Mr Abdelhamid Jlassi, told AFP the national dialogue proper is not expected to start on Monday, however.
"First there will be preparatory meetings, and the date of the government's resignation will not be determined until the start of the real national dialogue," he said.
"Ennahda's signature today is a major concession made in the interests of the country," he added.
Saturday's ceremony got under way after a delay of several hours that underscored the mutual distrust between the rival camps.
"I want to thank you for joining this dialogue because you are opening the door of hope for Tunisians," said Mr Houcine Abassi, whose UGTT trade union confederation was the lead mediator behind the roadmap.
Delegates at the Palais des Congres said the launch of the hard-won dialogue with a symbolic ceremony had earlier been jeopardised by a last-minute dispute.
The UGTT said Ennahda had initially refused to formally sign the text that underlines the timetable of the national dialogue.
It was not immediately clear how it was resolved, but Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi on Twitter blamed the almost four-hour delay on "last-minute blackmail" by the opposition.
Ennahda eventually signed the agreement, but its secular ally, the Congress for the Republic party of President Moncef Marzouki, refused to do so.
By signing the roadmap, the Ennahda-led coalition, which has been rocked by the murder of two political opponents, economic woes and prolonged political disputes, has agreed to step down two years after winning a general election.
Its victory at the polls on October 23, 2011, was the first free vote in Tunisian history, and followed the overthrow of long-ruling strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the first revolt of the Arab Spring.
Saturday's roadmap also foresees, within the next four weeks and after a national dialogue across the political spectrum, the adoption of a Constitution and a timetable for elections.
The ceremony was attended by Mr Marzouki, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and Parliament Speaker Mustafa Ben Jaafar, as well as party leaders.
"We will not disappoint the Tunisian people nor the dialogue itself," Mr Larayedh told the gathering.
Mr Ben Jaafar, a secular ally of the Islamists, said in a speech that "failure would be a sin we would have to answer for".
Earlier this week, Ennahda and the secular opposition agreed on a blueprint for talks, drafted by the UGTT, the employers' organisation Utica, the bar association and the Tunisian League for Human Rights.
Political activity had ground to a halt since Mr Brahmi's murder, holding up the formation of stable state institutions more than 21/2 years after the 2011 uprising.
A member of Ettakatol, a centre-left party allied with Ennahda, accused the opposition of imposing last-minute conditions, but declined to elaborate.
"There is a real problem of trust," Mr Mouldi Riahi told AFP before the dialogue finally opened.
Ennahda has been accused of mismanaging the economy and failing to rein in Islamic extremists, who are blamed for murdering Mr Brahmi and Mr Chokri Belaid, another prominent secular politician killed six months earlier.
Analysts had voiced cautious optimism ahead of the dialogue.
"The roadmap is a platform but its application word for word is less probable because of the lack of trust between the two sides," said Mr Slaheddine Jourchi.
Fellow analyst Sami Brahem echoed him, saying "the problem is a moral one, lack of trust between the ruling coalition and the opposition".
On Friday, a newspaper took a sceptical swipe at the country's politicians.
"Tunisians are hanging on the words of political actors, protagonists in a national dialogue... Will this dialogue lead to a saving solution?" asked francophone daily Le Quotidien.
"It's like watching a Mexican soap opera, but without the romance."