TUNIS: Thousands turned out Sunday to welcome Islamic leader Rached Ghannouchi after more than 20 years in exile, as he eyed a political future for his Ennahda movement after the fall of Tunisia’s regime.
“God is great!” Ghannouchi cried out, raising his arms in triumph as he walked into the arrivals hall of Tunis airport, with thousands of cheering supporters crowding around him before driving off to visit his family.
The crowd intoned a religious song in honour of the Prophet Mohammed, as supporters held up olive branches, flowers and copies of the Koran.
“I am so happy to be bringing him back home. I never thought I would see my brother again alive in Tunisia,” his sister, Jamila, told AFP.
There were also dozens of people protesting his arrival at the airport, holding up placards that warned against Islamic fundamentalism.
The 69-year-old said he was elated as he checked in for his historic flight at London’s Gatwick airport, where he posed with a Tunisian flag and embraced relatives before boarding for a country that he has not seen since 1989.
“When I return home today I am returning to the Arab world as a whole,” he told reporters, adding that Ennahda (Awakening) now planned to register as a political party and take part in the country’s first democratic elections.
The interim government installed in the north African state after the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 has granted unprecedented freedoms and allowed key exiles to return despite bans from the old regime.
Ghannouchi, a former radical preacher who says he now espouses moderate ideals similar to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), was persecuted in Tunisia ever since founding his Islamic movement in 1981.
He still officially has a life sentence hanging over his head for plotting against the president, although the new government has drawn up an amnesty law for convicted activists like Ghannouchi that now has to go before parliament.
“There is still confusion regarding the political situation…. The interim government is changing its ministers every day, it’s not stable yet and its powers are not clear yet,” Ghannouchi told reporters before leaving on Sunday.