Ennahda leader says 'Tunisia model' way to defeat Islamic State

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Tunis (AFP) - Tunisia's transition to democracy serves as an example of how to defeat extremists such as the Islamic State jihadist group, the leader of the country's powerful Islamist movement said.

"The success of the Tunisian experience is in the international interest, especially in the fight against extremism and the fight against Islamic State and similar groups," Ennahda head Rached Ghannouchi said in an interview with AFP in the runup to the country's first parliamentary election on Sunday since its 2011 revolution.

"The Tunisian model is the alternative to the Daesh model ... This Tunisian model ... brings together Islam and secularism, Islam and democracy, Islam and freedom for women," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS) which has seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.

"One of the best ways to fight terrorism is to advocate moderate Islam because terrorism is based on an extremist interpretation of Islam," said Ghannouchi, whose party has emerged as the leading political force in Tunisia in the aftermath of the revolt which ousted longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Often hailed as a rare success story following the Arab Spring uprisings that swept much of the region three years ago, the North African nation hopes the vote will be a highlight of a sometimes troubled transition.

Tunisia has grappled with social unrest over a weak economy, violence blamed on Islamists, and attacks by militant groups including Al-Qaeda loyalists.

A member of the security forces was killed on Thursday in a firefight with armed "terrorists" in the town of Oued Ellil a few kilometres (miles) from the capital, the authorities said.

Jihadists were blamed for last year's assassination of two leftist politicians whose murders plunged the country into a protracted political crisis.

Ghannouchi said such bloodshed had "nothing to do with jihad (holy war). It is terrorism and crime."

Ennahda won a 2011 election for a constituent assembly which drew up a post-Ben Ali constitution.

- Single party cannot rule -

In the face of criticism of his movement's record at the helm of post-Ben Ali Tunisia, he pointed out that Ennahda had allied itself with two secular parties for two years up until last January.

"We saved the country. We have a constitution and an electoral body," he said.

"And it has not been easy. We've made sacrifices. We even sacrificed power for the sake of Tunisia and for democracy," said Ghannouchi, referring to a deal with the opposition earlier this year under which Ennahda gave way to a caretaker government of technocrats.

"We have achieved the first goal of the revolution which is freedom. We have not achieved an economic miracle," he said, but added that he believed his party's economic record was better than that of its predecessors.

He said the lesson learnt since 2011 was one of "consensus, the fact that Tunisia cannot be ruled by a single party".

Ennahda has proposed the formation of a government of national unity after the election and has not put forward a candidate for a November 23 presidential vote, keeping its options open over whom it will back.

Tunisia needs a "widely-based government, neither rightist nor leftist, neither Islamic nor secular, but bringing in everyone," Ghannouchi said.

He did not rule out an alliance with the secular Nidaa Tounes party, led by former premier Beji Caid Essebsi who has criticised Ennahda as "backward" and anti-democratic.

Ghannouchi accused his rival of trying to divide Tunisian society by using similar rhetoric to that of the Ben Ali era, warning such remarks increased the risks of civil war.

"Putting into motion a machine which divides, one can no longer control it," he said.

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