Tunisian Islamic Party Re-elects Moderate Leader

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Source: The New York Times

TUNIS — The leader of Tunisia’s main Islamic political party was re-elected on Monday, winning endorsement for his effort to move the party away from its Islamist roots and stay in tune with the country’s five-year-old democratic revolution.

The leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, a renowned Islamic thinker who spent 22 years in exile during Tunisia’s dictatorship, had tears in his eyes Monday as he embraced his rival in the party vote, which he won with 800 of the 1,058 ballots cast.

The vote, a culmination of a three-day party congress here in Tunis, was a victory for Mr. Ghannouchi, 74, and an important turning point for his party, Ennahda, as it seeks to separate the party’s religious and political activities.

“One of the most important changes we came to was the independence of the political mission and the political party from social and cultural activities,” Mr. Ghannouchi told reporters. “We were not able to achieve this cause before because of a lack of clarity.”

He said the party had matured and the country’s new Constitution — guaranteeing freedom of religion, and calling for a separation of politics from civil society — had made a change in the party’s direction possible.

“The Ennahda millstone works slowly,” he said in Arabic. “It makes the cereals smooth, very smooth, after it grinds the corn.”

Inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the party was founded as the Islamic Tendency Movement in 1981, and later renamed Ennahda, or Renaissance. Thousands of its members were imprisoned or exiled under Tunisia’s authoritarian presidents, Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Mr. Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia from Britain in the weeks after the popular uprising that ousted Mr. Ben Ali in 2011 and led Ennahda to victory in 2012 in Tunisia’s first democratic elections.

After that victory, the party struggled to govern Tunisia in the tumultuous period following the revolution as secular opposition to the Islamists grew. They were seen by some to condone a surge of Salafist vigilantism in Tunisia, and popular confidence in the party’s leadership waned amid economic difficulties and rising terrorism.

Mr. Ghannouchi reached an agreement in 2013 with the leading secularist politician, Beji Caid Essebsi, for Ennahda to cede power to a caretaker government before new elections.

The agreement helped usher in a new Constitution.

Though Ennahda was beaten in elections in 2014 by Mr. Essebsi’s party, Nidaa Tounes, Mr. Ghannouchi was widely credited with having secured his party a permanent position in Tunisian politics.

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