TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- Islamic law will not be enshrined in Tunisia's new constitution, preserving the secular basis of the North African nation, Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahda Party said Monday.
The first article of the new constitution would remain the same as in the 1959 version and it will not call for Shariah, Islamic law, to be the source of all legislation, as many conservatives had wanted.
The decision marks a break between the moderate Islamist Ennahda and an increasingly vocal minority of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis who have been demanding Islamic law in a country long known for its progressive traditions.
"We do not want Tunisian society to be divided into two ideologically opposed camps, one pro-Shariah and one anti-Shariah," said Rachid al-Ghannoushi, the founder of the Ennahda Party in a press conference. "We want above all a constitution that is for all Tunisians, whatever their convictions."
He added that in his opinion, 90 percent of Tunisia's existing legislation was already in line with the precepts of Islamic law.
Ziad Doulatli, another party leader, told The Associated Press that decision was taken so as to "unite a large majority of the political forces to confront the country's challenges."
"The Tunisian experience can serve as a model for other countries going through similar transformations," he added.
In Egypt, as well as many other Muslim countries, Shariah is enshrined in the constitution as the source of all legislation.
Under more than 50 years of secular dictatorship, Tunisia stood out in the Arab world for its progressive laws, especially regarding the status of women. Many leftists and liberals feared this would be rolled back with the victory of an Islamist party at the polls.
Ennahda, however, has always pledged to maintain the character of the state and formed a coalition government with two secular parties.
The decision, however, is bound to provoke a backlash from the Salafis -- some 10,000 of whom demonstrated Sunday in Tunis, the capital, calling for Islamic law.
Despite their numerous demonstrations, the degree of support that the Salafis have from the broader Tunisian society is not clear. Ennahda's decision to spurn their demands suggests they do not have widespread appeal.
The first article of Tunisia's constitution states that "Tunisia is a free, sovereign and independent state, whose religion is Islam, language is Arabic and has a republican regime."
Tunisians overthrew their dictatorship in a popular uprising last year that inspired pro-democracy movements across North African and the Middle East.
In October, they elected a new assembly to govern as well as write the country's new constitution. Secular and Islamist groups have been holding demonstrations to influence the new document.
According to Fadhel Moussa of the leftist Democratic Modernist Axis, the agreement on the first article settles a long debate in the assembly and opens the way to creating the rest of the new constitution.