LONDON The leader of the Tunisian Islamist party that rose to power after the first Arab Spring uprising last year said this week that Islamist movements would eventually emerge triumphant throughout the Arab world after a difficult transition period.
Rached al-Ghannouchi, whose Ennahda party governs with two junior leftist partners, said secular groups should join forces with Islamists to manage the first phase after autocratic rulers were removed.
But in the end, Islam will be the "reference point".
"The Arab world is going through a transition phase which needs coalitions to govern, which brings together Islamist and secular trends," Ghannouchi said in an interview during a trip to London where he spoke at Chatham House.
"These coalitions will lead to eventual rapprochement between the Islamists and the secularists."
However, he added Islamists would have the upper hand.
"There's a true way that Islam represents the common ground for everyone ... Eventually Islam becomes a reference point for everyone," he said.
The role of Islam in government and society has emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisia in the wake of an uprising two years ago that sparked "Arab Spring" revolts that have empowered Islamists throughout the region.
Ennahda is accused by liberals of sympathy with puritanical Salafis, concerns exacerbated by a video that surfaced last month in which Ghannouchi is heard discussing which parts of the state are now in Islamist hands and how Salafis should spread their influence further.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - a movement affiliated to Ennahda - is locked in conflict with secular forces who fear the new Islamist President Mohammed Mursi and his Brotherhood backers want to impose their vision on society.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also the strongest force in the opposition that hopes to take over in the country if President Bashar al-Assad is ousted by rebels in what has become a bloody civil war that has claimed some 40,000 lives.
The Brotherhood-linked groups, which include the Hamas group that rules the Palestinian Gaza Strip, are backed by Qatar and its influential television network Al Jazeera.
The Gulf Arab state has played a pivotal role in supporting protests and armed rebellions that have ousted rulers in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, who all cast themselves to one degree or another as protectors of Arab secularism.
Islamist movements say they will return Arab societies to more authentic values that were distorted by colonialism and excessive Western influence.
CHANGE IN GULF?
Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia from exile in London after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled in January 2011, predicted there would be more change in the Gulf Arab region, whose family-ruled states, insulated by oil and gas wealth, have been the most resistant to the Arab Spring.
"I expect the victory of the Syrian revolution, reforms in more than one Arab country, particularly in the Gulf region," Ghannouchi said, when asked about the next stage, citing Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. "And for the countries where there have been revolutions, (I expect) there to be more stability."
Qatar joined other Gulf states in backing Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family against an uprising led by the island's majority Shi'ite population.
On Thursday, a Qatari court sentenced a poet to life in prison for incitement to overthrow the government and criticising the ruling emir.
Saudi Arabia faces emboldened Shi'ite protesters in its Eastern Province, while quieting its Sunni majority with more social spending and clerical warnings against protests.
But mass protests by Kuwaitis since October over an election law decree by the Emir has alarmed Gulf states this year.
Speaking through an interpreter, Ghannouchi said he saw further reforms in Morocco, where early elections last year brought an Islamist-led government to power though ultimate control of state affairs still lies with King Mohammed.
"Morocco has already made quite a few significant steps on the path to reform, and these will continue," he said.
(Editing by Andrew Hammond and Sophie Hares)