Tunisia Islamist party moves to separate politics from religion

Sunday 15/05/2016
They are ‘entering democratic Islam’

TUNIS - Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party on Friday opened a three-day congress during which it is expected to make moves to separate its religious and political activities.

Thousands of people attended the opening ceremony of the congress -- the first since 2012 -- held at a sports complex in Rades, south of the capital Tunis, amid heavy police security.

On the eve of the congress, French daily Le Monde published an interview with Ennahda chief Rached Ghannouchi in which he said there was no longer any room for "political Islam" in post-Arab Spring Tunisia.

"Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 constitution has imposed limits on extreme secularism and extreme religion," he was quoted as saying.

"We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity.

"We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam. We are Muslim democrats who are no longer claim to represent political Islam," he added.

On Friday he told the start of the congress that a move to separate political and religious activities "is not a decision that fell from the sky but the crowning of a historic process".

The Ennahda chief said "we make sure to keep religion away from political battles".

Ghannouchi, an intellectual who once advocated a strict application of Islamic law, and other intellectuals inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in 1981 founded the Islamic Tendency Movement, which became Ennahda in 1989.

Banned under the dictatorship of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the party was legalised after the 2011 uprising that ousted the veteran leader.

Ghannouchi, who lived in exile for 20 years, returned home to a triumphal welcome after the uprising and won post-revolution election in October 2011.

But two years later the now 74-year-old Ghannouchi had to step aside amid a deep political crisis.

In 2014, the secularist Nidaa Tounes party of President Beji Caid Essebsi won parliamentary elections, beating Ennahda which came second.

Essebsi was the "guest of honour" at Friday's congress and said he came despite initial misgivings "out of consideration for the efforts made by this party to back national reconciliation".

"We hope that you will be able during your work to affirm that Ennahda has become a civil party," he added.

On Friday Ennahda supporters in Rades chanted: "We want Ennahda again".

Around 1,200 Ennahda delegates will meet over the weekend in Hammamet, south of Tunis, to discuss the party's future and adopt economic, political and social roadmaps.

Ghannouchi is expected to be re-elected as head of the party.