Thousands welcome Islamist leader in Tunisia

The Islamists were Tunisia's strongest opposition force at the time Ben Ali cracked down on them two decades ago.

 Thousands welcome Islamist leader in Tunisia

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.

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.

"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."

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.

"Not to run for post"

Ghannouchi said his Ennahda party would work for the goals of the popular revolt that forced president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee Tunisia earlier this month.

Ennahda, he said, would likely contest a fair legislative election, though a decision had yet to be taken.

"We will take part if the conditions for fair elections exist," he said adding however that Ennahda's participation might be limited.

Ben Ali exiled Ghannouchi and cracked down on Ennahda in 1989 after it made a strong showing in elections. Ghannouchi has lived in London ever since. He collected a new Tunisian passport from the country's embassy in London on Thursday.

"The deputy ambassador gave me a warm welcome," he said.

The interim government, which took office after Ben Ali fled on Jan. 14, lifted a ban on parties and freed political prisoners including followers of Ennahda, Arabic for 'Renaissance'.

"Our role will be to participate in realising the goals of this peaceful revolution: to anchor a democratic system, social justice and to put a limit to discrimination against banned groups," Ghannouchi said by telephone.

Ghannouchi said: "The dictatorship weakened all of Tunisian society: politics, civil society. The only space was for the police. Now civil society is trying to rebuild itself.

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

"Like Turkey's AK Party"

The interim government has yet to set a date for elections. Ghannouchi said his party, founded in 1981, would not contest a presidential election.

"My brothers inside the country have said they do not want to run for this position," he said, echoing public statements by other Ennahda figures.

Ghannouchi, 69, said he had no desire to seek a state position himself. "There is another generation, a younger generation, qualified for these positions," he said.

Ghannouchi likened Ennahda to Turkey's AK Party, an Islamist-rooted party that has ruled since 2002.

"My books were translated into Turkish and had a great impact on the Turkish Islamist movement," Ghannouchi said.

"Our movement is a national independence movement. It believes in democracy: that Tunisia must be governed by real, complete democracy, with no exceptions, no oppression, no restrictions on freedom of expression and real judicial independence."

Tunisia has imposed a strict secular order since independence from France in 1956, such as ban on headscarf. Habib Bourguiba, the independence leader and long-time president, was known to be anti-Islam. Ben Ali followed him.


Agencies

Last Mod: 31 Ocak 2011, 12:28
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