TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party voted Monday to separate its political and religious work, part of its effort to cast itself in line with the North African country's secular political heritage.
The move at the party's conference in the resort town of Hammamet came as the group, headed by charismatic 75-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, positions itself for local elections due next year. Ennahda is currently the biggest party in parliament after a string of defections from President Beji Caid Essebsi's secular Nida Tunis party.
"We have to keep religion away from political fights," said Ghannouchi, who also won a new five-year term as the head of Ennahda on Monday.
Tunisia has been bedeviled by splits between secular-minded liberals and Islamists since the latter came to power in the wake of the first of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. Ennahda took the reins following Tunisia's revolution, but had to cede power following a political crisis sparked by the assassination of two opposition politicians which almost tipped the country into civil war.
The president of this majority Muslim country hailed Monday's decision, saying that "Islam presents no danger to democracy."
Political observers said it was another savvy move by Ghannouchi, who has steered the Islamist movement for the past 34 years, more than 20 of them from exile in London.
"We can't deny that Rachid Ghannouchi along with BCE (Essebsi) has prevented the country from falling into bloodshed, just as we can't deny his capacity to adapt to new situations," analyst Baklouti Barketallah said.
But some are convinced the secular talk is just window dressing.
Monday's announcement "masks a strategy to Islamify the country which may have changed its tools but has never changed its objective," political commentator Sofiane Ben Hamida said.