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Thousands greet Tunisian Islamist leader`s return

Thousands turned out to welcome Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi`s return after more than 20 years in exile.

Tunis: Thousands turned out on Sunday to
welcome Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi`s return
after more than 20 years in exile, as political Islam prepares
a comeback following 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, said.

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 had not seen since 1989.

"When I return home today I am returning to the Arab
world as a whole," he told reporters, adding that the popular
Ennahda (Awakening) movement that he founded now planned to
take part in Tunisia`s first democratic elections.

Experts say it is hard to gauge the strength of
Islamism as a political force in Tunisia as it has been banned
for decades but Islamists were Tunisia`s most powerful
opposition force before persecution began in the early 1980s.

"There`s a lot more sentiment in his favour than most
people realise. They`re only going to be a player, not a
dominant force," George Joffe, a lecturer in international
affairs at Cambridge University, said earlier.

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 the 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 Islamist 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.

In contrast to his preachings from the 1970s in which
he condemned the rise of secular ideas in his homeland and the
advances in women`s rights, Ghannouchi on Sunday said that
Sharia Islamic law now had "no place in Tunisia".

"It`s a great joy for us to be able to greet a
comrade," Abdel Fattah Mourou, one of the original members of
Ennahda, told AFP at the airport.

Najwa, a teacher who said she was imprisoned for
wearing an Islamic veil, said: "Everything that`s said about
him are lies... He`s a moderate Islamist."
Mohammed Mahfoud, 37, a trade unionist, said: "I have
come to pay homage."

But the views on the streets of Tunis were far more
critical of Ghannouchi.

"He has not said what he plans to do. He could cause
trouble and destabilise the upcoming elections," said
Amenallah Darwish, a 29-year-old lawyer.

Some feminist groups are worried that Ghannouchi`s
return may signal a rise in political Islam that could
endanger their hard-won rights.

Hundreds of women rallied in the centre of Tunis on
the eve of Ghannouchi`s arrival, saying they would defend
their rights against conservatives.

Asked about some of this concern on Sunday, Ghannouchi
was dismissive.

"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 two years 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 went first to Algeria and then to Britain
in 1991. Hundreds of Islamist activists who stayed behind were
thrown into prison, often on flimsy charges.