Manama: The decision by Al Nahda, the moderate Islamist party ruling in Tunisia, not to push for making Islamic law as the only source of all legislation has caused a rift within the North African country’s political establishment.

On Monday, Rachid Gannouchi, the head of Al Nahda, said that the party would not amend Article One of the constitution promulgated in 1959 that stipulates that “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state and that Islam is its religion, Arabic its language and the Republic its political regime.”

“The issue of Shariah has divided the society and there is no consensus over adopting it in the constitution,” Gannouchi said.

“However, there is a consensus that the religion of the country is Islam and the priority should remain to establish a genuine democratic system that guarantees the freedoms of all people without any form of discrimination,” he said.

Conservatives have been exerting pressure, staging rallies and publishing articles and statements, to amend the first article of the constitution and ensure that Islam is the only source of legal texts.

However, liberals have been calling for promoting secularism and avoiding mixing politics with religion.

Farida Abidi, a member of Al Nahda, said that the decision not to amend the first article of the constitution was a positive step.

“Those who called for enshrining Islamic laws as the only source of legislation were afraid of not applying the law properly,” she said.

Taher Hmila, from the Congress for the Republic, a member of the troika in power, welcomed the decision as an end to a “sterile dialogue.”

“Al Nahda has clearly chosen to remain committed to avoiding the controversy over making Islamic laws as the only source and to putting an end to a sterile dialogue,” he said.

“The decision also helped save Al Nahda and the troika from ominous fractures and divisions. It will also help the ad-hoc committees to move faster towards drafting a new constitution that meets the aspirations of the Tunisian people and is in line with our nation,” he said, quoted by local Arabic daily, Assabah, on Tuesday.

For other liberals, the decision meant that Al Nahda honoured the pledge it made to consolidate freedoms and rights. “We are pleased with the decision that reminds us of the vow by Al Nahda to make Tunisia a civil and democratic state,” Ahmad Al Safi, a Communist party member, said.

However, the decision was harshly criticised by the hardliners within Al Nahda party.

“I am not convinced by this decision and I will ask all organisations within Al Nahda to review it,” Habib Ellouze, an active member of the party, said.

“There is a risk of a popular vacuum and tension because many people had strong faith in Al Nahda to lead the process to enshrine the source of all legislation,” he said.

Trends within Al Nahda on full Islamic laws included adopting a flexible approach or not fully applying them, he said. “However, the main tendency is to adopt Islam as the only source of all legislation and our decisions should not be based on electoral considerations. There are also expected strong reactions from Salafis,” he said.

Salafis have been highly visible in recent weeks on Tunisian streets and have organized several rallies to push for adopting Islamic laws.

On Sunday, Abu Iyadh, the head of the Salafi movement in Tunisia who was released after eight years in a Tunisian prison, said that they did not recognise the constituent assembly, even though most of its members were Islamists.

“We cannot ask the enemies of God to apply Islamic laws,” he told Assabah.

“Those who do not believe in Shariah are in fact the enemies of God and do not understand anything about the significance of Shariah. They know only about amputating hands. Shariah is a way of life and God’s rules,” he said.

Aymen Zouaghi, from the Popular Petition Movement, accused Al Nahda of betraying the choices of the people who voted it in.

“Al Nahda was not elected on an economic, political or social platform, but rather on its claims that it would defend the religion ad would enshrine it as the only source of legislation in the constitution,” he said.

“When Al Nahda refuses to assume its responsibilities and to honour its promises, we are forced to wonder whether the Islamist party, lured by the rule of the country, has given up on its principles and raison d’etre,” he said.

Zouaghi said that several MPs representing Al Nahda were “very disappointed”, but opted not to voice their views under the principle of adhering to the party line.