Mon, Jan 31, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Tunisians wary of Islamist’s return

AFP and Reuters, TUNIS

Leader of the Ennahdha party, Rached Ghannouchi, prepares to fly out of London Gatwick Airport on his way to Tunisia yesterday.

Photo: AFP

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi vowed a transition to democracy as hundreds of women rallied on Saturday in the Tunisian capital to express their fears of an Islamist resurgence.

Women’s groups took to the streets of Tunis to defend the extensive rights for which they have fought for more than half a century, on the eve of the return of Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi from 22 years of exile.

Actresses, university lecturers and human rights campaigners said they wanted to make sure their rights stay intact despite the recent upheavals.

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahdha (Renaissance) party, who returned to Tunis yesterday, having fled the country more than 20 years ago after former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali cracked down on Islamists. The party is still officially banned.

“We want to send an important message to the Islamists, especially those from the Ennahdha party — that we are not ready to pull back on or abandon our rights,” said Sabah Mahmoudi, a university lecturer.

Rached Ghannouchi’s return from London comes as the new government installed after Ben Ali’s downfall unveiled unprecedented democratic freedoms including lifting media controls, releasing political prisoners and registering banned parties.

The Ennahdha leader still officially has a life sentence from the old regime hanging over him for plotting against the state, but in practice other convicted exiles have been able to return without any hindrance in recent days.

The government has drawn up an amnesty, which still has to go to parliament.

Spokesmen for Rached Ghannouchi have said he was not expecting to return “triumphantly” and wanted to return simply as “a free man.”

The 69-year-old said he was elated as he checked in for his flight at London Gatwick Airport, where he posed with a Tunisian flag and embraced relatives before boarding on his way to a country he has not seen since 1989.

“When I return home today I am returning to the Arab world as a whole,” he told reporters.

He said earlier that he plans to let younger people take over Ennahdha.

He has also emphasized that he does not seek the presidency, but wants his party, despite the ban, to take part in the country’s first democratic elections.

“Our role will be to participate in realizing the goals of this peaceful revolution: To anchor a democratic system, social justice and to put a limit to discrimination against banned groups,” Rached Ghannouchi told reporters a day before his return. “The dictator has fallen and I want to be in the country.”

Ennahdha, which likens its ideology to that of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, was the strongest opposition force in Tunisia before the crackdown that forced Rached Ghannouchi out of the country.

However, the Islamists did not appear to be a leading force in the wave of protests that toppled Ben Ali. It has yet to be seen whether Rached Ghannouchi’s return can galvanize the party.

Tunisian law prohibits any political parties based on religious grounds.

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