Tunisia's ruling Islamist party opens historic meeting

Tunisia's ruling Islamist party Ennahda opened its first congress at home in 24 years on Thursday, seeking to clarify its strategy against a backdrop of political and religious tensions.

The gathering opened with a reading of verses from the Koran at a congress centre in Al Karm, a Tunis suburb that had in the past served to host meetings of toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's party, now disbanded.

Some 25,000-30,000 people are to attend the three-day congress, which is also the party's first since it came to power following Ben Ali's ouster in protests that touched off the 2011 Arab Spring.

Among the foreign guests invited are Khaled Meshaal, political chief of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip, and Libya's National Transitional Council chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil.

About 1,100 delegates will have to determine the party's position on political alliances, as the dominant partner alongside two centre-left parties in Tunisia's tripartite government coalition.

The congress will also seek to reconcile different trends within the party, between moderates and more radical ideologues, even if founding leader Rached Ghannouchi is expected to keep his post.

On Wednesday, Ghannouchi reiterated in an online interview that the party wanted to present itself as a "moderate Islamist movement" promising "hope and prosperity" to Tunisian men and women.

Established in June 1981 by Ghannouchi and a group of intellectuals inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda (Renaissance) was banned by Ben Ali after a major electoral success in 1989, and its leaders jailed or forced into exile.

Ghannouchi returned in January 2011 after 20 years of exile in London.

His party then won Tunisia's first post-uprising poll, in October.

It took 41 percent of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly, the interim body tasked with drafting a new constitution and preparing fresh elections, due in March 2013.

It now dominates the government along with centre-left parties the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, which won 33 percent of the seats in the assembly.

Made up largely of moderates, Ennahda said in March that Islamic sharia would not be inscribed in Tunisian basic law, much to the relief of its coalition partners, who feared the Islamist majority in parliament might open the door to a theocracy.

After its electoral success, Ennahda monopolised the top cabinet posts, including the interior, justice and foreign ministries, while the premiership went to Hamadi Jebali, the party's number two.

The challenges facing the government are wide-ranging.

Tunisia's latest political crisis -- and deepest so far -- came just last month, when Jebali ignored President Moncef Marzouki's opposition to the extradition of former Libyan premier Baghdadi Al Mahmudi.

The row between Jebali and Marzouki, a member of the CPR, exposed the uneasy nature of the governing coalition.

Tunisia is also regularly shaken by social unrest.

The party aims to reduce unemployment, a driving factor behind the revolution, to 8.5 percent by 2016 from around 19 percent now, but with the economy still struggling to recover that is a sensitive issue.

Ennahda has also struggled to clarify its line on the Salafists -- hardline Islamists who have grown more confident since the revolution -- with recent violence sparking criticism that it has done too little to stop them.

The Salafists went on the rampage in mid-June, torching police stations and political offices, after taking issue with art works at a Tunis exhibition they deemed offensive to Islam.

Ghannouchi suggested on Wednesday that the Salafists were being used by remnants of the former regime to destabilise the country, but he insisted that dialogue was necessary to contain their radicalisation and not alienate them.

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