By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's Islamist party will uphold women's rights and not try to impose strict Muslim values if, as many expect, it wins the first election since Tunisia's revolution, its leader said.
The October 23 vote for an assembly that will draft a new constitution has pitted resurgent Islamists against secular groups who say their modern, liberal values are under threat.
Tunisia electrified the Arab world 10 months ago when a popular uprising overthrew autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, creating a model that was copied by people hungry for change in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.
Western powers and governments in other Arab states are watching Tunisia's election closely, worried that democratically elected Islamists might impose strict Islamic law and turn their back on Western allies.
Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia from exile in Britain after Ben Ali's fall, told Reuters in an interview that Western countries and Tunisian liberals had nothing to fear from a victory for his Ennahda party.
"Ben Ali did everything he could to convince the West that we are a terrorist group but he couldn't do it," he said.
"We are not cut off from our environment ... All the values of democracy and modernity are respected by Ennahda. We are a party that can find a balance between modernity and Islam."
More than 100 parties will contest the election, but Ennahda has the highest public profile and biggest support network. Opinion polls suggest it will get the most votes, but not win an outright majority in the assembly drafting the constitution.
In the interview, Ghannouchi denied an allegation by his critics that he presents a moderate image in public but that once in power his party's hardline character will emerge.
Two issues in particular, women's equality and liberal moral attitudes, are seen by many Tunisians as a litmus test of how tolerant Ennahda will be if it gains power.
In an indication of the party's stance on women's rights, a woman who does not wear the head covering favored by Islamists is Ennahda's candidate for one district in the capital, Tunis.
"The values ??of modernity and women's freedom began with the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba," Ghannouchi said at his party headquarters, where many of the staff are women.
"We will not retreat from these values ??... We will support these values," he said. "A woman's freedom and her freedom of dress has been established and we will develop it."
Western tourists are a major source of income for Tunisia but their habits of drinking alcohol and wearing skimpy clothing can cause tensions with devout Muslims.
Nevertheless, Ghannouchi said he did not favor any restrictions.
"We will seek to create a diversified tourism product, like Turkey," he said, adding that hotels would not be prevented from offering alcohol and swimming pools, but that they would be encouraged to offer packages for observant Muslims without access to alcohol and with Islamic dress codes at the pool.
European states for years tolerated Ben Ali's autocratic rule because Tunisia was a trading partner and it helped curb the flow of drugs, illegal migrants and Islamist militants northwards across the Mediterranean.
Ghannouchi said it was in the interests of all sides for Tunisia to maintain good relations with the West.
"I lived for a long time in Europe without any problems," he said. "I lived in tolerance with everybody."
"During my meetings with Western officials and diplomats, I received the message that Ennahda will be welcomed if it wins the elections," he said.
"They told me that they stand at the same distance from all competitors and their goal is the success of the democratic transition, because the failure of the transition would be catastrophic for Europe, for example, which will be flooded by hundreds of thousands of migrants."
"We will maintain the relations with our traditional partners such as Europe, but we will seek to improve them in order to get advanced status," Ghannouchi said, referring to a trade pact Tunisia is seeking with the European Union.
"But we will try also to diversify our partnership to open up to the United States and Latin America, Africa and Asia, and especially Arab markets," he said.
One reason for the uprising against Ben Ali was that the economy was growing too slowly to generate jobs for youngsters.
Ghannouchi said his party's foreign policy would be driven by the need to fix this problem. "The biggest concern is to attract foreign investment as part of foreign and local partnerships to drive growth and increase jobs."
"The party aims to develop the knowledge economy by encouraging investment in the technology industry ... There are significant growth opportunities in the telecommunications sector," he said.
He said he had a message for potential investors.
"Tunisia has become beautiful without Ben Ali ... We will put an end to corruption, we will develop legislation to stimulate investment," said Ghannouchi. "We will confront the corruption that has spread in the structures of the state."
(Editing by Christian Lowe and Alistair Lyon)