Leader of Tunisia's Islamists to step down

2011-02-25 19:00

Tunis - The head of Tunisia's Ennahda Islamist movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, will step down and be replaced this year, he told Turkey's state-run news agency in an interview published on Friday.

Ghannouchi, a respected Muslim scholar who has spoken in favour of women's rights and democracy, returned to Tunisia from two decades in exile following last month's overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

His planned departure calls into question the future leadership of Ennahda, which is expected to be a significant political force in forthcoming elections in the predominantly Muslim North African state.

"Ghannouchi ... said that he would soon quit as the leader of Ennahda, as he did not want to assume any political duties in any section of the government," according to the report from Turkey's Anatolian news agency.

"He said the Ennahda movement would elect its new leader at a congress to be held this year."

North Africa's most developed country has been in flux since protests ended Ben Ali's 23-year rule on January 14, sparking riots across the Arab world that some analysts fear could play into the hands of Islamist militants.

Ghannouchi has asked Tunisia's interim government for permission to reinstate Ennahda as a political party ahead of elections to replace Ben Ali, who had banned the movement over allegations it sought to overthrow the secular state.

The interim government has yet to approve Ennahda's licence, and is working to rewrite the country's constitution ahead of the polls hoped for by July or August.

Ghannouchi said earlier this month that he did not plan to stand in the presidential elections.

A successful transition to democracy in Tunisia, which relies heavily on its tourism industry, could provide a model to other countries in the region facing uprisings.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11 after the Tunisian-inspired revolt, while massive rallies are pressuring other governments, including Libya's.