Islamist leader Ghannouchi returns to Tunisia after 22 years in exile
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After 22 years in exile, Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist party Ennahda, was welcomed by thousands of supporters in the Tunis airport on Sunday. Ennahda intends to take part in Tunisia's post-revolution elections.
AP - The leader of a long-outlawed Tunisian Islamist party returned home Sunday after two decades in exile, telling The Associated Press in his first interview since his return that critics should not compare him to the father of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and should accept that his views are more moderate.
“Some Western media portray me like (Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini, but that’s not me,” Rachid Ghanouchi told the AP after returning to his North African country, where thousands of people welcomed him at the airport, some shouting “God is great!”
Ghanouchi and about 70 other exiled members of Ennahdha, or Renaissance, flew home from Britain two weeks after autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced from power by violent protests.
During 23 years in power, Ben Ali cracked down on opponents, including proponents of political Islam, jailing them and sending many into exile. Amid protests over corruption and repression, Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14.
With Ben Ali gone, Ennahdha has moved quickly to carve out a place in the political scene, taking part in demonstrations and meeting with the prime minister.
While Ennahdha was branded an Islamic terrorist group by Ben Ali, it is considered moderate by scholars. Though the ban on Ghanouchi’s party hasn’t officially been lifted, the new interim government has been more tolerant of it.
Ghanouchi confirmed that he is not interested in running in elections expected in upcoming months.
“I am not going to run for President of Tunisia, nor as a minister nor as a parliamentarian,” he said in an interview at his brother’s home.
Ghanouchi compared his views to those of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite Erdogan’s Islamist roots, he has been widely viewed as a pragmatist largely loyal to the legacy of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who sought to create a secular, modern state.
“Why do people want to compare me to (Osama) Bin Laden or Khomeini, when I am closer to Erdogan?” Ghanouchi said. He also said his political movement seeks to reinforce women’s rights.
Public expressions of support for Ennahdha, such as the one at the airport, were unthinkable under Ben Ali. Ben Ali banned the party, accusing it of conspiring to kill him and establish a Muslim fundamentalist state.
Ghanouchi, 69, left the country as Ben Ali came to power in 1987. In 1991, he was convicted in absentia to life in prison, as were most of the party’s leaders. They denied authorities’ accusation that they had tried to take power by force.
The new activism by Islamists _ who want a role for Islam in their country’s politics _ is feeding jitters that extremism may be on the rise in Tunisia, long a Westward-looking nation proud of its modern identity: women enjoy widespread freedoms, Muslim headscarves are banned in public buildings and abortions, a deep taboo in most Muslim societies, are legal.