Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party Ennahda holds its first congress at home in 24 years on Thursday, seeking to clarify its strategy against a backdrop of political and religious tensions in the country.
Some 25,000-30,000 people are to attend the three-day congress, which is also the party’s first since it came to power following the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2001 in protests that touched off the Arab Spring.
Roughly 1,100 delegates will have to determine the party’s position on political alliances, as the dominant partner alongside two center-left parties in Tunisia’s tripartite government coalition.
The congress will also seek to reconcile different trends within the party, between moderates and more radical ideologues, even if founding leader Rached Ghannouchi is expected to keep his post.
On the eve of the congress, Ghannouchi reiterated in an online interview, that the party wanted to present itself as a “moderate Islamist movement” promising “hope and prosperity” to Tunisian men and women.
Established in June 1981 by Ghannouchi and a group of intellectuals inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda (Renaissance) was banned by Ben Ali after a major electoral success in 1989, and its leaders jailed or forced into exile.
Ghannouchi returned in January 2011 after 20 years of exile in London.
His party then won Tunisia’s first post-uprising poll, in October. It took 41 percent of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly, the interim body tasked with drafting a new constitution and preparing fresh elections, due in March 2013.
It now dominates the government along with center-left parties the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, which won 33 percent of the seats in the assembly.
Made up largely of moderates, Ennahda said in March that sharia would not be inscribed in Tunisian basic law, much to the relief of its coalition partners, who had feared the Islamist majority in parliament might open the door to a theocracy.
After its electoral success, Ennahda monopolized the top cabinet posts, including the interior, justice and foreign ministries, while the premiership went to Hamadi Jebali, the party’s number two.
The challenges facing the government are wide-ranging.
The country’s latest political crisis -- and deepest so far -- came just last month, when Jebali ignored President Moncef Marzouki’s opposition to the extradition of former Libyan premier Baghdadi al-Mahmudi.
The row between Jebali and Marzouki, a member of the CPR, exposed the uneasy nature of the governing coalition.
Tunisia is also regularly shaken by social unrest.
The party aims to reduce unemployment, a driving factor behind the revolution, to 8.5 percent by 2016 from around 19 percent now, but with the economy still struggling to recover that is a sensitive issue.
Finally, Ennahda has struggled to clarify its line on the Salafists -- hardline Islamists who have grown more confident since the revolution -- with recent violence sparking criticism that it has done too little to stop them.
The Salafists went on the rampage in mid-June, torching police stations and political offices, after taking issue with art works at a Tunis exhibition they deemed offensive to Islam.
Ghannouchi suggested on Wednesday that the Salafists were being used by remnants of the former regime to destabilize the country, but he insisted that dialogue was necessary to contain their radicalization and not alienate them.
Meanwhile, party officials seem confident about the congress’s outcome.
“We want to prove that, with the philosophy of alliance, we can achieve a strategic convergence, because the transition period could last between 10 and 15 years, the objective being to establish stable and irreversible democratic foundations,” Riadh Chaiba said this week.
As well as the movement’s political program, the conference will consider its vision for society and the place of religion within it, together with related issues, including women, family, art, media and sport.
These are pressing challenges for a party that was thrust into power last year, after having to operate in the shadows for more than two decades.