Sunday, 30 January 2011

France24 - Tunisian Islamist leader Ghannouchi returns home after 22-year exile

Tunisian Islamist leader Ghannouchi returns home after 22-year exile
After 22 years in exile, Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist party Ennahda, was welcomed by thousands of supporters in Tunis' airport on Sunday. The Ennahda party intends to take part in Tunisia's post-revolution elections.

By Oliver FARRY (video)
News Wires (text)

REUTERS - Thousands of Tunisians turned out on Sunday to welcome home an Islamist leader whose return from 22 years of exile marks a powerful symbol of the change that has swept the country this month.

Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda movement, has lived in London since he was exiled in 1989 by president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali, who was toppled on Jan. 14 by popular protests that have sent political tremors across the Arab world.

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The Islamists were Tunisia’s strongest opposition force at the time Ben Ali cracked down on them two decades ago but have not been seen to play a prominent role in the popular revolt. Analysts say they may re-emerge as a prominent political force.

The turnout at Tunis airport on Sunday was the biggest show of support for Ennahda in the past two decades, during which their supporters were jailed by Ben Ali.

“Allahu Akbar”, chanted the crowd, made up mainly of young men. “The Muslim people will not surrender.” Aiport security struggled to contain the throng, which spilled out into the car park.

Ennahda, which likens its ideology to that of Turkey’s ruling AK Party, says it is committed to democracy. Experts on political Islam say its ideas are some of the most moderate among Islamist groups.

“No to extremism, yes to moderate Islam!” and “No fear of Islam!” read banners held aloft by Ghannouchi’s supporters. A group of women stood ready to present him with flowers.

“We don’t want an Islamic state, we want a democratic state,” said Mohammed Habasi, an Ennahda supporter. “We suffered the most from a lack of democracy.”

A group of about a dozen secularists held up banners reading: “No Islamism, no theocracy, no Sharia and no stupidity!”

No plans to run for president

Speaking to Reuters a day before his return, Ghannouchi said the party’s role would be to help “anchor a democratic system, social justice and to put a limit to discrimination against banned groups.”

“We are taking part so we can move from a one-party system to a true multi-party system without corruption or oppression.”

The movement is expected to participate in future elections, a date for which has yet to be set by the interim government.

However Ennahda has said it will not nominate a presidential candidate and Ghannouchi, 69, has said he does not want to run for any public office.

Tunisia has imposed a secular order since independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, the independence leader and long-time president, considered Islam a threat to the state. Ben Ali eased restrictions on the Islamists when he seized power in 1987, before cracking down on them two years later.

The Tunisian protests which electrified the Arab world and inspired Egyptians to take to the streets have largely dried up in the last few days following the announcement of a new interim government purged of most of the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime.

The security forces have sought to restore order to the capital, where confrontations between shopkeepers and protesters have indicated dwindling support for demonstrators from Tunisians who want life to return to normal.