By Tarek Amara
TUNIS, July 16 (Reuters) - Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda has re-elected moderate Rachid Ghannouchi to lead the Islamist party for two more years, sources said on Monday, an outcome that could reassure secularists worried about a slide into religious government.
One Ennahda source close to Ghannouchi said he had taken more than 70 percent of the vote at the party’s first public congress that began on Thursday.
Banned under Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled last year in mass protests that sparked the Arab Spring, Ennahda won the most seats in elections to a constituent assembly in October and formed a government in coalition with two secular parties.
Ennahda has since come under pressure from both hardline Salafi Muslims, calling for the introduction of Islamic law, and secular opposition parties.
Twelve leading Ennahda officials competed for the post. Among them were Sadek Chorou and Habib Elouz, both considered hardliners who pushed for Ennahda to support the inclusion of Islamic law in the constitution currently being drawn up by the elected constituent assembly.
Abdel Fattah Mourou, a co-founder of Ennahda who was excluded from the movement in the 1990s, returned to the fold at the congress and also ran for the top job.
Some 1,103 Ennahda members voted to elect the president and secretary general as well as a powerful 150-member consultative committee.
Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s co-founder and current leader, is a respected scholar who teaches that Islam is compatible with democracy.
Ennahda was founded as an underground organisation in the 1970s and went public in 1981, sparking a fierce crackdown by Tunisia’s independence hero and then-president Habib Bourguiba, a staunch secularist who brooked no dissent. Ghannouchi was among the Ennahda members jailed during the 1980s.
After promising reforms, Bourguiba’s successor Ben Ali again cracked down on opponents in the 1990s, arresting thousands of Ennahda supporters. Many fled abroad.
Ghannouchi went to London, where he was to spend more than 20 years, returning after the revolution last year.
Compared to other Islamist movements in the Arab world, Ennahda is considered to be moderate and committed to democratic politics and the rejection of extremism.
Ghannouchi will lead the party until the party votes again at an extraordinary conference in 2014.