TUNIS: Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party is set to re-elect its leader at its first public congress this week, as part of an effort to shore up its moderate credentials and ease a long-running standoff over the role of Islam in politics.
Banned under Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled last year in mass protests that sparked the Arab Spring, Ennahda won the most seats in elections to a constituent assembly in October and formed a government in coalition with two secular parties.
Ennahda has since come under pressure from both hard-line Salafist Muslims, calling for the introduction of Islamic law, and secular opposition parties who worry that it will slowly Islamize one of the Arab world’s most secular countries.
The four-day congress, which began Thursday, will be watched closely by secularists and Salafists for indications as to which direction Ennahda is likely to steer the North African state.
Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s co-founder and current leader is a respected scholar who teaches that Islam is compatible with democracy.
Analysts and party members told Reuters he was widely expected to keep his post given his long history in the movement and his ability to bridge the gap between its moderate and hardline wings.
“The congress will resolve the direction of movement ... whether it [be] the Turkish experience or a walk towards the Afghan model,” said analyst Nabil Zagdoud.
“It is likely that Ghannouchi will remain in his post as leader of the movement because he is the most able to communicate with the two components of the movement.”
Najib Mrad, an Ennahda member, said he expects the party to re-elect Ghannouchi and support moderation.
“The most important objective of this congress is ... to establish Ennahda as a moderate Islamist movement [that is] open, focused on the concerns of Tunisians [and] on achieving their ambitions,” Ghannouchi told journalists on the eve of the meeting.
Ghannouchi has still not formally announced his candidacy for the vote, which is expected to take place Saturday or Sunday.
Among the prominent challengers to him are Sadek Chorou and Habib Elouz. Both pushed for Ennahda to support the inclusion of Shariah, or Islamic law, in the constitution currently being drawn up by the elected constituent assembly.
They were defeated in an internal vote on the issue and Ghannouchi announced that Ennahda would stick to its election pledge to keep the existing first clause of the constitution, which makes no mention of the role of Sharia in lawmaking.
Ennahda’s decision allayed fears of creeping Islamization among Tunisia’s secular elites but angered conservatives and exposed splits inside the movement.
Speaking to Reuters, Elouz refused to either confirm or deny his candidacy, but said the role of religion in politics and society would be among the main topics of discussion.
“The movement does not include a single voice or a single leader, but multiple trends and voices,” he said. “The importance of this phase requires the presence of a man who unites rather dividing.”
More than 1,000 members are due to vote for the roles of president and secretary general of Ennahda. They will also elect an executive office and a consultative committee with power to overrule the party leader, party officials told Reuters.
Though the congress is Ennahda’s ninth, it is the first that will be open to the public as the party was previously banned. Ennahda was founded as an underground organization in the 1970s and went public in 1981, attracting a fierce crackdown by Tunisia’s independence hero and then-president Habib Bourguiba, a staunch secularist who brooked no dissent.
Ghannouchi was among the Ennahda members jailed during the 1980s.
After promising reforms, Bourguiba’s successor Ben Ali again cracked down on opponents in the 1990s, arresting thousands of Ennahda supporters.
Ghannouchi went to London, where he was to spend more than 20 years, returning after the revolution last year. Ennahda won an official license two months after the revolt.