By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian Islamists awaited confirmation on Thursday that their Ennahda party had won a historic victory in the North African country's first free elections, after an uprising ousted former ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Ennahda has tried to reassure secularists and investors, nervous about the prospect of Islamists taking power in one of the Arab world's most liberal countries, by saying it would not stop tourists wearing bikinis on beaches or impose Islamic banking.
It has put forward one of its officials for the prime minister's job, after it scored a resounding victory in the first election after the "Arab Spring" uprisings.
Officials said they were still tabulating results from Sunday's election but could make a final declaration on Thursday.
Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali, will probably be short of an absolute majority in the new assembly but is expected to form a coalition with two of the secularist runners-up. The Islamists will get the biggest say on important posts.
Beji Caid Sebsi, Tunisia's current prime minister, said in comments published on Thursday that he had no reason to doubt Ennahda's commitment to the secular state and democracy.
"I can't judge intentions, that's up to God. I can only judge by what's public and so far it's positive. At the end of the day, no one can come and change things completely," he told Egypt's al-Ahram daily.
"I think (Ennahda) will rule intelligently and deal with reality. It is not necessarily a dark force. Tunisia will continue to move forward and not go against history."
Sebsi, a secularist technocrat who served in Ben Ali cabinets, has occupied the post of caretaker prime minister since March. An uprising forced Ben Ali to flee in January.
VOTE WILL WEIGH IN EGYPT
The outcome of the vote, 10 months after a Tunisian vegetable seller set fire to himself in an act of protest that set in motion the "Arab Spring", will resonate in other countries with elections soon, especially Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, ideological ally of Ennahda, is well placed.
No Islamists have obtained power in the Middle East since Hamas won a 2006 election in the Palestinian Territories, but the uprisings which reshaped the political landscape this year have created an opening for them.
The constituent assembly where Ennahda will have the largest number of seats will be responsible for appointing a new interim government and president, then writing a new constitution before parliamentary and presidential elections.
Hamadi Jbeli, Ennahda secretary general and a former political prisoner under ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has said he is set to be Ennahda's interim prime minister.
Jbeli also said on Wednesday that Sebsi and center-left party leaders Moncef Marzouqi and Mustafa Ben Jaafar were possible candidates Ennahda would approach for the presidency.
Jbeli spent over a decade in jail, along with thousands of other Ennahda supporters rounded up by the former authorities. An engineer by training, he is the leading lieutenant of party leader Rachid Ghannouchi.
ENNAHDA HAS OVER 40 PCT
Ennahda, citing its own figures, says the election gave it 40 percent of the seats in the assembly which will draft a new constitution, appoint an interim government and set a date for new elections late next year or early in 2013.
The Islamists' main secularist challengers have already conceded defeat.
Only a trickle of official results has so far appeared -- unlike elections under Ben Ali when the outcome was announced straight away, probably because it had been pre-determined.
Returns from districts which completed their counts showed Ennahda had 53 seats in the 217-seat assembly. Its nearest rival, Marzouqi's Congress for the Republic, had 18. Figures from the capital have yet to be announced.
Defying predictions that Tunisia's election would lead to violence and clashes between police and a hardline Islamist minority, Sunday's vote passed off peacefully. It was applauded by Western monitors.
The main Tunisian share index rose sharply on Wednesday after Ghannouchi met bourse executives and told them he was in favor of more companies listing on the bourse.
Party leader Ghannouchi is keeping himself out of government, some analysts say to concentrate on winning a presidential election expected early in 2013.
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Edited by Richard Meares)