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Tunisia's Ennahda holds congress on separation of religion and politics

Party chief Ghannouchi says there is no room for "political Islam" in post-Arab Spring Tunisia
Tunisian Ennahda party deputies attend parliamentary session to present new government in Tunis on 4 February (AFP)

Tunisia's Ennahda party on Friday opened a three-day congress during which it is expected make moves to separate its religious and political activities.

Thousands of people attended the opening ceremony of the event - the first since 2012 - held at a sports complex in Rades, south of the capital Tunis, amid heavy police security. 

On the eve of the meeting, French daily Le Monde published an interview with Ennahda chief Rached Ghannouchi in which he said there was no longer any room for "political Islam" in post-Arab Spring Tunisia.

"Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 constitution has imposed limits on extreme secularism and extreme religion," he was quoted as saying.

"We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity.

"We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam. We are Muslim democrats who no longer claim to represent political Islam," he said.

His comments came on the eve of the three-day meeting for Ennahda, which is part of a coalition government.

Leaders say the congress will take the formal step of establishing the separation between political and Islamic activities.

Ghannouchi, who is expected to be re-elected as party head, barring any last-minute surprise, said: "We are going towards a party that specialises in political activities."

Ghannouchi, an intellectual who once advocated a strict application of Islamic law, and other intellectuals inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, in 1981 founded the Islamic Tendency Movement, which became Ennahda in 1989.

Banned under the dictatorship of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the party was legalised after the 2011 uprising that ousted the veteran leader.

Ghannouchi, who lived in exile for 20 years, returned home to a triumphal welcome after the uprising and won post-revolution election in October 2011.

But two years later, the now-74-year-old Ghannouchi had to step aside amid a severe political crisis.

In 2014, the secularist Nidaa Tounes party of President Beji Caid Essebsi won parliamentary elections, beating Ennahda, which came second.

On Friday, supporters in Rades chanted, "We want Ennahda again".

Around 1,200 Ennahda delegates will meet over the weekend to discuss the party's future and adopt economic, political and social roadmaps.