News24

Tunisia legalises 2nd Islamist group

2012-07-18 18:56

Tunis -Tunisia's government has granted a licence to hardline Islamist group Hizb al-Tahrir to allow it to become a legal political party, making it the second such group to join the political mainstream after renouncing violence.

Hizb al-Tahrir is an international movement that seeks to re-establish the Caliphate, a defunct form of an Islamic empire. It does not endorse democracy nor take part in elections but is focused mostly on preaching.

The Islamist group is banned in several countries and was repressed in Tunisia before last year's revolution ousted secular dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and brought the current moderate Islamist Ennahda party into government.

Tunisia's secular elites accuse Ennahda of being too soft on hardliners. Ennahda says its strategy is to bring them into the political mainstream to avoid violent protest from the fringes.

In May, the government granted a political licence to another Salafi Islamist party, Islah Front, drawing criticism from secularists.

Ridha Belhadj, who heads the Tunisian branch of Hizb al-Tahrir, said the government had granted it a licence after it committed itself to peaceful political action.

"The goals of Hizb al-Tahrir are to establish an Islamic Caliphate, raise Islamic awareness and lead the country to achieve radical change and the unity of the Islamic nation," he said.

While Islamists did not play a prominent role in the 2011 uprising that toppled Ben Ali, a struggle over the role of religion in government has since polarised politics in the North African country known as one of the region's most secular.

Banned under Ben Ali, Ennahda won 42% of seats in Tunisia's first free elections in October and now leads the government.

Ennahda says it is committed to democracy and freedom of dress but ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist groups have pushed in recent months for the creation of an Islamic state and the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, causing alarm among secularists.