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Rachid Ghannouchi returns to Tunisia after exile

Rachid Ghannouchi, an Islamist leader, returns to Tunisia after 22 years of exile. His return comes weeks after the ousting of Tunisia's president.

Rachid Ghannouchi
Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Islamist movement Ennahdha, waves upon arrival at the Tunis-Carthage airport after 22 years in exile on January 30, 2011 in Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia Sunday after 22 years in exile as the country works to establish a new government after the ousting of the president weeks ago.

Ghannouchi walked off the flight at Carthage airport, raised his arms in the air and cried out "Allahhu Akbar."

The return from Britain of Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda party, sparked speculation that Islamists would play a major force in Tunisia's post-revolution politics. The North African nation has followed a secular system since its independence from France in 1956.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali jailed or exiled thousands of Islamists during the past two decades. He exiled Ghannouchi in 1989, a time when Islamists were considered the nation's strongest opposition force.

Thousands of Islamists came to the Tunis airport Sunday to welcome home Ghannouchi. They hugged each other and prayed publicly on the grass, which would not have been possible before the recent revolution.

"Up to 10,000 young men and veiled women packed the arrival hall and car park. Some climbed trees and electricity pylons to catch a glimpse of the 69-year-old Ghannouchi, who says he has no ambition to run for state office," reports Reuters.

Ghannouchi told the crowd:

"Oh great people who called for this blessed revolution, continue your revolution, preserve it and translate it into democracy, justice and equality."

The overthrow of Ben Ali on Jan. 14 was not attributed to Islamist groups in the country, but it is likely to pave the way for Islamic groups to compete for power in Tunisia.

"The revolution in Tunisia has opened the way for long-suppressed Islamic groups such as Ennahda, which means renaissance, to emerge from hiding and begin pursuing their political agendas with an eye on elections scheduled to be held within six months. Ennahda's leaders have quickly made their presence felt here," reports the Los Angeles Times.

Ghannouchi has stressed that he espouses moderation and pluralism. He compares his political ideology to that of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, and he says he does not believe Tunisia should implement Sharia Islamic law.

The protests in Tunisia inspired popular demonstrations against autocratic regimes across North Africa and the Middle East. Egyptians have spent the past six days protesting the rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/africa/110130/rachid-ghannouchi-tunisia