Tunisian Islamists awaited confirmation on Thursday that their Ennahda party had won a historic victory in the North African country's first free elections after an uprising ousted former ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Ennahda has tried to reassure secularists and investors, nervous about the prospect of Islamist rule in one of the Arab world's most liberal countries, by saying it would not stop tourists wearing bikinis on beaches or impose Islamic banking.

It has put forward one of its officials for the prime minister's job, after it scored a resounding victory in the first election following the Arab Spring uprisings.

On Thursday it said many officials might retain their jobs, including the finance minister and central bank governor.

The tendency is to keep the same strategy, except for some ministers whose performance has been lamentable, Samir Dilou, a member of Ennahda's executive bureau, told Reuters.

Officials said they were still tabulating results from Sunday's vote but could make a final declaration on Thursday. The extended process, while parties make their own tally, has allowed secularists to absorb in stages a victory that was widely predicted but whose apparent size has surprised some.

Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali, will probably fall short of an absolute majority in the new assembly but is expected to form a coalition with two of the secularist runners-up. The Islamists will get the biggest say on important posts.

Ennahda, citing its own figures, says the election gave it over 40 percent of the seats in the assembly, which will draft the constitution, appoint an interim government and set a date for new elections late next year or early in 2013.

Returns from districts which completed their counts showed Ennahda had 68 seats in the 217-seat assembly. The Islamists' main challengers have already conceded defeat, and its main rival, Moncef Marzouqi's Congress for the Republic, had 23.

Ennahda is expected to win many seats in the capital and other cities, where official results have not yet been declared.

The trickle of official results contrasts with the Ben Ali era when election outcomes were usually announced right away, probably because they had been pre-determined.

Beji Caid Sebsi, the current prime minister, said in comments published on Thursday that he had no reason to doubt Ennahda's commitment to the secular state and democracy.

I can't judge intentions, that's up to God. I can only judge by what's public and so far it's positive. At the end of the day, no one can come and change things completely, he told Egypt's al-Ahram daily.

I think (Ennahda) will rule intelligently and deal with reality. It is not necessarily a dark force. Tunisia will continue to move forward and not go against history.

PROTEST

Sebsi, a secularist technocrat who served in Ben Ali cabinets, has occupied the post of caretaker prime minister since March. An uprising forced Ben Ali to flee in January.

Defying predictions that the election would lead to violence and clashes between police and a hardline Islamist minority, Sunday's poll was peaceful and was applauded by Western monitors.

But in a sign of possible complications, supporters of a Tunisian television mogul staged a protest in Sidi Bouzid -- the impoverished town in the Tunisian interior where the revolt began -- against Ennahda's refusal to talk to his party.

Results posted in many districts so far show Hachmi Hamdi's Popular List doing surprisingly well. Hamdi owns London-based TV station al-Mustaqilla, which followed a pro-Ben Ali line in recent years.

Ennahda said this week it would not include Hamdi in any coalition talks, suspecting his list of having found support among supporters of Ben Ali's now banned RCD party. Hamdi, formerly aligned with Islamists, also targeted Ennahda votes.

The list won at the ballot box and we demand that the people's choice be respected. If not, things will get worse here, Mehdi Horchani, one of the protesters, told Reuters by telephone, describing a protest of hundreds.

VOTE WILL WEIGH IN EGYPT

The outcome of the vote, 10 months after a Tunisian vegetable seller set fire to himself in an act of protest that touched off the Arab Spring, will resonate in other countries with elections soon, especially Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, ideological ally of Ennahda, is well placed.

No Islamists have obtained power in the Middle East since Hamas won a 2006 election in the Palestinian Territories, but the uprisings which reshaped the political landscape this year have created an opening for them.

Hamadi Jbeli, Ennahda secretary general and a former political prisoner under Ben Ali, has said he is set to be Ennahda's interim prime minister.

Jbeli also said on Wednesday that Ennahda might approach Sebsi or centre-left party leaders Marzouqi and Mustafa Ben Jaafar for the presidency.

Jbeli spent over a decade in jail, along with thousands of other Ennahda supporters rounded up by the former authorities. An engineer by training, he is the leading lieutenant of party leader Rachid Ghannouchi.

The main Tunisian share index rose sharply on Wednesday after Ghannouchi met bourse executives and told them he was in favour of more companies listing on the bourse.

Ghannouchi is staying out of government to concentrate, some analysts say, on winning a presidential election expected early in 2013.

(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Tim Pearce)