The leader of a long-outlawed Tunisian Islamist party was welcomed at the airport by thousands of cheering supporters on Sunday as he returned to his homeland after more than two decades in exile.
Rachid Ghanouchi and about 70 other exiled members of Ennahda, or Renaissance, flew home from Britain two weeks after autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced from power by violent protests. Mr. Ghanouchi took up a megaphone to address the crowd outside the airport, but his voice was drowned out by shrill ululating cries and shouts of “God is great!”
During 23 years in power, Mr. Ben Ali cracked down on opponents, including proponents of political Islam, jailing them, and sending many into exile. Amid protests over corruption and repression, Mr. Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. Tunisia has issued an international arrest warrant for him, accusing him of taking money out of the country illegally.
Thousands welcome Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Ennahda movement, back to Tunisia after 22 years of exile. Deborah Gembara reports.
Swiss prosecutors said Sunday they have launched a money laundering investigation into accounts belonging to Mr. Ben Ali and his family. The Federal Prosecutors Office said the accounts blocked two weeks ago contain tens of millions of Swiss francs. Prosecutors in Paris are also probing the family’s assets in France.
With Mr. Ben Ali gone, Ennahda has moved quickly to carve out a place in the political scene, taking part in demonstrations and meeting with the prime minister. Though the ban on Mr. Ghanouchi’s party hasn’t officially been lifted, the new interim government has been tolerant of it.
Public expressions of support for Ennahda, such as the one at the airport, were unthinkable under Mr. Ben Ali. Mr. Ben Ali banned the party, accusing it of conspiring to kill him and establish a Muslim fundamentalist state. While Ennahda was branded an Islamic terrorist group by Mr. Ben Ali, it is considered moderate by scholars.
Mr. Ghanouchi, 69, left the country as Mr. Ben Ali came to power in 1987. In 1991, he was convicted in absentia to life in prison, as were most of the party’s leaders. They denied authorities’ accusation that they had tried to take power by force.
Mr. Ghanouchi has said he is not personally interested in running for the presidency or parliament in upcoming elections.
“All I want is to breathe the air of the country from which I was exiled for more than two decades” and to pray at a famous mosque in Tunis, Mr. Ghanouchi wrote in a message released on the eve of his return, adding that he wanted “in short, to be an ordinary citizen.”
The new activism by Islamists — who want a role for Islam in their country’s politics — is feeding jitters that extremism may be on the rise in Tunisia, long a Westward-looking nation proud of its modern identity: women enjoy widespread freedoms, Muslim headscarves are banned in public buildings and abortions, a deep taboo in most Muslim societies, are legal.
Ennahda insists that fears of radicalism have no merit. Before leaving London, Mr. Ghanouchi tried to reassure the country’s women, saying he believed they deserve “the freedom to study, to work and to help build the country, whether they wear the veil or not.”
In the past, the Islamist movement was never given a chance in Tunisia, said Mohammed Gharbi, an Ennahda supporter, on the main street in the capital. “Let’s not criticize something that we have yet to try.”