Thousands greet Islamist leader's return from exile to Tunisia

The leader of Tunisia's largest Islamist movement returned from exile in Britain yesterday to be greeted by thousands of supporters celebrating the arrival of the "lost leader".

Rached Ghannouchi raised his arms in triumph and cried out "Allahhu Akbar" as he walked off the flight from Gatwick at Carthage airport as the crowd sang religious songs and presented him with flowers and the Koran.

Mr Ghannouchi, who had been sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for alleged terrorist offences, had been away from his country for 23 years. He had said in Britain that he was waiting for the right time to go home after the overthrow of President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali on 14 January.

Now, with protests surging across the Middle East and the near-collapse of Egypt, his colleagues say he felt the moment had arrived when real change could be obtained.

"When I return home today, I am returning to the Arab world as a whole," said Mr Ghannouchi as he set off on his flight. After arriving in Tunis, the 69-year-old former teacher insisted that he had no plans to run for the presidency, and would instead help to "anchor a democratic system, social justice and to put a limit to discrimination against banned groups. We are taking part so we can move from a one-party system to a true multi-party system without corruption or oppression."

Mr Ghannouchi's followers formed an escort around him after expressing fear that the police might try to arrest him. However, the state security apparatus has steadily unravelled since the fall of the regime of Mr Ben Ali and there was no attempt to stop Mr Ghannouchi by the handful of uniformed staff on duty.

A smaller group of men and women held up banners reading: "No Islamism, no theocracy, no sharia and no stupidity." Members of Mr Ghannouchi's party, Ennahda, claimed that the counter-demonstrators had been duped by the "Godless Ben Ali" and started their own chant of "No to extremism, yes to moderate Islam!" and "No fear of Islam!"

Since independence from France, governments in Tunisia had followed a broadly secular path with periodic crackdowns on what they perceived as Muslim extremism. Mr Ghannouchi, who studied in Cairo and Damascus, returned to his country towards the end of the 1960s and said that he was perturbed by the strength of the secularist movement and the extent of female emancipation.

He was accused of making inflammatory speeches and served six years in prison during the rule of Habib Bourgiba, before being freed in an amnesty by his successor, Mr Ben Ali. However, he soon fell out with the new administration and fled to Algeria and then the UK in 1989.

Mr Ghannouchi's return means that almost all the key players in the opposition to Mr Ben Ali are back in Tunisia. Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist and the founder of Congress for the Republic, returned from Paris two weeks ago, and other exiles have followed.

But what will happen next remains unclear. Leaders of leftist factions such as Najib Chebbi, Mustafa ben Jaafar and Ahmed Ibrahim, who had remained in the country under the regime, have been offered posts in the interim government by the Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi. There is no indication that they will be prepared to form an alliance with Islamist groups in the elections due to be held soon.

Apprehension about Islamism remains in Tunis and other main cities. An attempt by a group of Saudi-inspired hardline Salaafists to hold a meeting at a Tunis mosque 10 days ago drew three times as many opponents as adherents.

Despite Mr Ghannouchi's assurance that he does not want to impose sharia law in Tunisia, many remain sceptical of his motives. In the city centre, Naima Ali, a middle-aged woman in a veil, said: "Many people were imprisoned because of him, young people lost their future. No one is happy about his return. He lived the good life in London while others paid a heavy price."

Ibrahim ben Jasim, a doctor, said "His kind of extremist should stay in London, where I have seen a lot of people like him. It does not belong in the Tunisia we are trying to build."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager - Part Time

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital agency based in Ashford, Ke...

Recruitment Genius: Sales and Marketing Executive

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent