Triumphant return for exile as moderate Islamists tipped to win Tunisian poll

Tunis, Tunisia - After 22 years in exile in the West, Rached Ghannouchi stands on the brink of winning power in the first Arab Spring elections.

The chairman of Tunisia's once-banned Islamist party, Ennahda (Renaissance), Mr Ghannouchi is set to create a new model for the Arab world, blending Islam with democracy.

"For many years I have encouraged people in Tunisia to revolt. I have written many books and articles to encourage the Tunisian people to rise up," he said.

"I never lost hope that we would return and I was full of confidence that if free elections were held, Ennahda had a substantial share of the vote and would win."

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia when a fruit-seller set fire to himself in the southern city of Sidi Bouzid a year ago, sparking riots that spread to the capital and ousted President Ben Ali in January.

The country is still leading the way, with the first free elections since the string of Arab revolutions began.

Mr Ghannouchi said Sunday's election for a Constituent Assembly was a beacon of hope not just for the Arab Spring, but for other protest movements worldwide.

"What is clear is that the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia does not stop at the doors of the Arab world but is reaching Australia and Wall Street and the capitals of Europe, indicating that the world needs change, leaving the resources of the world not in the hands of a small elite," he said.

For Ennahda, the battle is between the supporters of a democratic order and the forces of the dictatorial "ancien regime".

Mr Ghannouchi sees no contradiction between Islam and democracy, although not all Islamists agree with him.

For the secular parties, on the other hand, the real struggle is between Islam and democracy.

"We are very afraid for democracy in this country if Ennahda win," said Issam Chebbi, a candidate of the left-wing Progressive Democratic Party. "They are lying all the time. They say they are pacifist and want democracy. But they use religion in politics, which is not fair. They are trying to trap people with religion."

The election campaign has already caused Islamists to protest against the broadcast of the film Persepolis. The 2007 film, about a Muslim girl growing up in post-Revolutionary Iran, contains a joking image of Allah.

Although it had already been screened at a Tunisian film festival, when Persepolis was broadcast on TV and dubbed into local dialect it infuriated many Muslims.

The home of the head of the TV station was attacked. In June, Salafist Muslims stormed a central Tunis cinema showing a film about secularism.

Ennahda represents moderate Islamists. A second Islamist movement, Tahrir (Liberation), remains outlawed. Abdelmajid Habibi, the head of Tahrir's five-man political bureau, said his group disagreed with Ennahda's interpretation of Islam's role in politics.

"Democracy is a way of life. Islam is a different way of life," Mr Habibi said. "The principal idea of democracy is to separate religion from politics so man can choose his own law on Earth. Islam liberates mankind by putting the whole world under a divine order. Man is submitted to God."

Polls show Ennahda leading with about 25 per cent of the vote, followed by the PDP with about 16 per cent and the centre Ettakatol with about 14 per cent.

Mr Ghannouchi said Ennahda would seek a national unity government if it emerged as the largest party on Sunday.

Tunisia's secular parties are trying to put together a grand coalition to keep the Islamists out of power.