Tunisian Islamists show strength at chief’s return
(Photo: Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi (C, with red scarf) is welcomed by supporters upon his arrival in Tunis January 30, 2011/Louafi Larbi)
Thousands of Tunisians turned out on Sunday to welcome home an Islamist leader whose return from 22 years of exile indicated that his party would emerge as a major force in Tunisia after the ousting of its president.
The reception for Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, at Tunis airport was the biggest showing by the Islamists in two decades, during which thousands of them were jailed or exiled by president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Ghannouchi was exiled in 1989 by Ben Ali, who was toppled on January 14 by popular protests that have sent tremors through an Arab world where similarly autocratic leaders have long sought to suppress Islamist groups.
The Islamists were Tunisia’s strongest opposition force at the time Ben Ali cracked down on them in 1989 but are thought not to have played a leading role in the popular revolt.
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.
“Oh great people who called for this blessed revolution, continue your revolution, preserve it and translate it into democracy, justice and equality,” Ghannouchi told the crowd, to chants of “Allahu Akbar.”