Tunisian Islamist leader eyes political role

TUNIS (AFP) – Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi told AFP his movement wanted to play a political role in Tunisia, upon returning to his homeland from more than 20 years in exile after the fall of the old regime.

TUNIS (AFP) – Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi told AFP his movement wanted to play a political role in Tunisia, upon returning to his homeland from more than 20 years in exile after the fall of the old regime.

He said Ennahda (Awakening) would join the government formed after president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's downfall if asked to do so, although he emphasised that it would not field a candidate in planned presidential elections.

"If we feel that the government satisfies the expectations of those who have led this revolution, then why not," Ghannouchi said, speaking in a room decorated with a Tunisian flag as his aides offered tea and sweets to visitors.

"We were not consulted on the formation of the government. They want to forge Tunisia's future without allowing other political forces to take part," said Ghannouchi, who was greeted by thousands earlier on Sunday in Tunis.

A veteran opposition leader, Moncef Marzouki, who has also returned from exile since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, was one of the dozens of people who came to pay his respects and he embraced Ghannouchi.

"The country needs all political forces, it needs a national unity government in which everyone can take part," Ghannouchi said.

"I myself will not run for the presidency," he said, adding that he did not have ambitions for a ministerial or other type of official role.

He also dismissed fears among some Tunisians that his movement could seek to roll back women's rights, saying these were the fruit of Ben Ali's "propaganda machine" and he said he was "ready for dialogue" on issues such as abortion.

"People must accept that there are different versions of political Islam. We are much closer to the AKP of Turkey than we can ever be to the Taliban or (Osama) Bin Laden," he said, referring to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party.

There were emotional scenes at the airport on Sunday as supporters held up olive branches, flowers and copies of the Koran to welcome Ghannouchi, who had not been in his native land since fleeing persecution by Ben Ali in 1989.

"God is great!" Ghannouchi cried out, raising his arms in triumph as he walked into the arrivals hall, the crowd around him intoning a religious song in honour of the Prophet Mohammed and singing Tunisia's national anthem.

"I am like a child who has returned to his mother's arms," he said.

But there were also dozens of people protesting his arrival at the airport, holding up placards that warned against Islamic fundamentalism.

Experts said it is hard to gauge the strength of Islamism as a political force in Tunisia as it has been banned for decades. But Islamists were Tunisia's most-powerful opposition force before persecution began in the early 1980s.

"There's a lot more sentiment in his favour than most people realise. But they're only going to be a player, not a dominant force," said George Joffe, a lecturer in international affairs at Cambridge University.

The interim government installed in the north African state after the ouster of Ben Ali amid a wave of protests has granted unprecedented freedoms and allowed key exiles to return despite the bans from the old regime.

Ghannouchi still officially has a life sentence hanging over his head for plotting against the former president, although the government has drawn up an amnesty law for convicted activists that now has to go before parliament.

"I have come to pay homage," said Mohammed Mahfoud, 37, a trade unionist who had come to welcome Ghannouchi at the airport.

Najwa, a teacher who said she was imprisoned for wearing an Islamic veil, said: "Everything that's said about him are lies... He's a moderate Islamist."

But the views on the streets of Tunis were far more critical.

"He has not said what he plans to do. He could cause trouble and destabilise the upcoming elections," said Amenallah Darwish, a 29-year-old lawyer.

Ghannouchi fled Tunisia two years after Ben Ali came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987. In elections in 1989, which were heavily falsified, an Islamist-backed coalition still managed to win 17 percent of the vote.

Shortly after that, persecution of leading Islamists began and Ghannouchi went first to Algeria and then to Britain in 1991. Hundreds of Islamist activists who stayed behind were thrown into prison, often on flimsy charges.

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