TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's ruling Islamists emphasized their commitment to a civil, democratic state — as opposed to one under hardline religious rule — as they opened on Thursday their first party congress since taking power.
The comments appear aimed at easing concerns of many in the opposition who fear an erosion of Tunisia's secular, progressive heritage now that the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party is in charge.
The party invited leaders from across the Middle East, including Khaled Meshaal of the Palestinian Hamas movement, who entered the room to thunderous applause and cries of "the people want the liberation of Palestine."
Tunisians overthrew a dictatorial regime last year, sparking similar movements across the Arab world and paving the way for October elections won handily by Ennahda. The party was banned under the previous government, and the four-day congress that began Thursday is the first it has been able to hold in public.
"Despite the challenges, our country has preserved its civil character and attachment to democratic principles, all based on an Islamic reference," said Hamadi Jebali, the prime minister and the party's secretary general, emphasizing "freedom as a fundamental value and the sanctity of human rights."
Ennahda allied itself with two secular liberal parties to form a ruling coalition and it has been at pains to assure Tunisians, and especially the Westernized, French-speaking elite, that it is committed to democracy and does not want to turn this North African country of 10 million into a hardline Islamic state.
Ennahda did not ask for Islamic law to be enshrined in the constitution as the source of all legislation, as is the case with some other Middle East countries. But it also has stressed that its rule will be informed by Islam, the religion of the vast majority of Tunisians.
In the year and a half since the revolution, Tunisia has been wracked by strikes, a shrinking economy, and a rising unemployment rate that exceeds 18 percent of the work force. It also has witnessed protests and unrest brought on by hardline Islamists known as Salafis, who want the government to enforce strict religious law.
The opposition, meanwhile, has criticized Ennahda as being dictatorial.
In apparent reference to those complaints, Jebali spoke of the need to widen the ruling coalition to create a "centrist democratic force." But the prime minister emphasized that Ennahda would seek a strong win in March parliamentary elections to stay in power and pursue its program. Ennahda currently holds 89 out of 217 seats.
Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the head of the center-left Ettakatol Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, also spoke about his support for a republican system promoting equality between men and women.
"Just as we have denounced the use of religion by the state, so we will not tolerate tyranny in the name of religion and the attacks on individuals' privacy," he said, referring to the Salafis.
The congress included attendees from the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, Iran, Sudan, North Africa, as well representatives of the United States, Canada, the European Parliament and European political parties.
Meshaal, of Hamas, spoke to the assembled audience about the need for continued resistance against Israel and to recover occupied Palestinian territory. He denounced the past two decades of peace efforts as merely a period of acquiescing to Israeli demands.
"Our strategy is resistance and only resistance," he said. "A Palestinian state only makes sense with the return of the Palestinians to their looted lands."
Israel, the U.S., the EU and others consider Hamas a terror group because of its suicide bombings and attacks on civilians that have killed hundreds, which the group has justified as part of the struggle against Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and military attacks.