Tunisia's Islamist leader returning from exile
Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Islamist movement Ennahda, boarded a plane Sunday to return home from London after 22 years in exile, his daughter travelling with him told AFP.
Following the ousting of authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Ghannouchi is returning to Tunis intent on fielding candidates from his movement if free and fair elections are held.
He checked in at London Gatwick Airport accompanied by a 30-strong group of supporters and journalists.
"He is boarding the plane now," his daughter Soumaya Ghannouchi told AFP by telephone from a departure gate.
His British Airways flight left at 0849 GMT and was due to arrive in Tunis at 1125 GMT.
Wearing an open-necked shirt and overcoat, a smiling Ghannouchi posed with the Tunisian flag and embraced relatives.
"I feel very happy today," the 69-year-old said.
"When I return home today I am returning to the Arab world as a whole.
"I am still the leader of my party. I want to organise a conference.
"If there are free and fair elections Ennahda will take part -- in the legislative elections, not the presidential elections."
Ghannouchi's return 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 Islamist 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 hindrance in recent days.
The government has drawn up an amnesty, which still has to go to parliament.
"There is still confusion regarding the political situation," Ghannouchi said.
"The interim government is changing its ministers every day, it's not stable yet and its powers are not clear yet.
"It's not clear who it is accountable to because the current parliament is still the one-party parliament. It's not clear how long it will be there for.
"We do not believe that one party can rule on their own. A national unity government is what is appropriate at the moment.
He said all Tunisia's opposition parties "were severly repressed; all of them need time to reconstruct."
Asked whether he supported Sharia law, Ghannouchi told reporters: "All of these have no place in Tunisia.
"For many years we have agreed alongside the opposition parties common ground, including approving freedom of conscience, political pluralism... and we have agreed on a paper on gender equality."
Members of Ghannouchi's Ennahda (Awakening) movement, which was banned under Ben Ali, are expected to greet him at Tunis airport.
Ghannouchi founded Ennahda in 1981 inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood but says it is now more like Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).
"Most of our books have been translated into Turkish and have formed the intellectual basis for the AKP," he said.
Some feminist groups are nonetheless worried that Ghannouchi's return signals a rise in political Islam that could endanger their hard-won rights.
Tunisia's law prohibits any political parties based on religious grounds and his movement is still officially banned.
Ghannouchi was asked about reports of protests in Tunisia on Saturday against his return.
"This fear is only based on ignorance," he said, because Ben Ali's regime had "worked to distort all its opponents, described them as terrorists or being against modernity. All of these allegations have no basis in reality."
Ghannouchi fled Tunisia shortly 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 fled first to Algeria and then to Britain. Hundreds of Islamist activists who stayed behind were thrown into prison, often on flimsy charges.
"I am grateful to Britain because it provided refuge, protection and safety, so (Ben Ali) failed in exerting pressure to deport me whereas he succeeded with all other Arab states and most Western states," Ghannouchi said.
© 2011 AFP