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Tunisia ends 20-year ban for Islamist party

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TUNIS, Tunisia — A Tunisian Islamist party banned for more than 20 years was legalized Tuesday, while the country's most prominent opposition figure quit the unity government amid renewed uncertainty about where Tunisia is headed.

The Ennahdha party — branded an Islamic terrorist group by Tunisia's deposed leader but considered moderate by scholars — has rebounded onto the political scene since a popular uprising forced out autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January.

Ennahdha members want a role for Islam in their country's politics, but have not called explicitly for any specific laws enforcing Islamic practices.

Still, their activism has fed jitters that extremism may be on the rise in Tunisia, long a Westward-looking nation where women enjoy widespread freedoms, Muslim headscarves are banned in public buildings and abortions, a deep taboo in most Muslim societies, are legal.

The party requested legalization a month ago and received it Tuesday, party spokesman Abdallah Zouari told The Associated Press, calling it a "step in favor of the Tunisian revolution." He said the party will focus on rebuilding and electing a new leader to prepare for upcoming elections.

Tunisia's caretaker government is trying to restore stability after weeks of deadly clashes between police and protesters that led to Ben Ali's ouster — and sparked revolts across the Arab world.

Tunisia also is struggling with a gathering exodus of refugees fleeing violence and chaos in neighboring Libya. Aid workers at the Libya-Tunisian border, where authorities say up to 75,000 people have fled Libya in just the past nine days, warned on Tuesday that the situation is reaching a crisis point.

The state news agency, TAP, reported Tuesday that 100,000 people overall are stuck in the border areas — including many Egyptians who have had trouble getting home because their own country's government has been in flux. The agency added that "Tunisia can't host them much longer because of the instability in the country."

Tunisia had enjoyed relative calm until recent days, when new clashes left six dead and the prime minister resigned after 11 years as the head of government. This raised new questions about the future of this country, long a haven for European tourists and ally in U.S. efforts to fight terrorism.

Six government ministers have quit their posts since Sunday, including three Tuesday, apparently trying to distance themselves from a caretaker government seen as too linked to the old regime.

The most high-profile to do so was Nejib Chebbi, who founded the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, and whose entry into the unity government was seen as big step toward democracy in Tunisia, where dissent in politics and the media was routinely quashed for decades.

Chebbi announced his resignation Tuesday, saying he's not happy with the newly named prime minister and government measures he says are unjust and aimed at keeping him from seeking the presidency.

He said he is particularly frustrated by a measure requiring government ministers to abstain from running in upcoming presidential elections.

He also warned that the current instability in Tunisia could lead to a military takeover.

Chebbi's party, known by its acronym PDP, was long the primary legal opposition group in Tunisia. Many other opposition parties were banned, including Ennahdha.

Ennahdha won 17 percent of the vote in legislative elections in 1989, but was subsequently banned and thousands of its members convicted of trying to overthrow the government. Several of its leaders fled. Some 20,000 supporters turned out to greet party leader Rached Ghannouchi when he returned from exile in London after Ben Ali fled Jan. 14.