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Respected head of Tunisian Islamist group to step down

Rachid Ghannouchi

(Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunis February 4, 2011/Louafi Larbi )

The head of Tunisia’s Ennahda Islamist movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, will step down and be replaced this year, he told Turkey’s state-run news agency in an interview published on Friday. Ghannouchi, a respected Muslim scholar who has spoken in favour of women’s rights and democracy, returned to Tunisia from two decades in exile following last month’s overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

His planned departure calls into question the future leadership of Ennahda, which is expected to be a significant political force in forthcoming elections in the predominantly Muslim North African state. Analysts have said any moves to sideline Ennahda, which is likened to Turkey’s ruling AK Party, which emerged from a series of Islamist parties, could backfire by radicalising the group and encouraging militants seeking a foothold in the country.

“Ghannouchi … said that he would soon quit as the leader of Ennahda, as he did not want to assume any political duties in any section of the government,” according to the report from Turkey’s Anatolian news agency. “He said the Ennahda movement would elect its new leader at a congress to be held this year.”

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Interview -Tunisian Islamists say they’re excluded, call for unity govt.

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(Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis February 3, 2011/Louafi Larbi )

Tunisia’s Islamists have been shut out of the interim government, Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi said, calling for a cabinet that brings together all parties and for the dismantling of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s police state. Banned for over 20 years, his Ennahda (Arab for “Renaissance”) party applied this week for a license and will take part in Tunisia’s first free elections, though Ghannouchi himself has pledged not to run for any office.

“No one invited us and no one consulted us over the make-up of this government… We don’t know who made up this government, who chose these people, what their authority is, who they answer to,” Ghannouchi told Reuters in an interview. “We called for a government of national alliance comprised of opposition parties and civil society organisations such as the labour union, lawyers and rights groups, a government that… is not imposed like this.”

Islamists emerge as powerful force in the new Tunisia

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(Supporters welcome home Rachid Ghannouchi at the airport in Tunis January 30, 2011. The sign reads: "No fear of Islam"/Louafi Larbi)

They are at pains to assure Tunisians this is no Islamic revolution. They do not seek the presidency. They will run alongside other groups in the democracy that replaces Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali’s police state.

Tunisia’s main Islamist group may not have played any role in the revolution that toppled Ben Ali after 23 years, but any doubt that Ennahda would emerge as one of the largest players was dispelled with the return of its leader Rachid Ghannouchi.

Factbox: Who is Tunisia’s Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi?

Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Tunisia’s main Islamist Ennahda movement returns on Sunday to the country from which he was exiled 22 years ago.

Below are some facts on Ghannouchi and his party Ennahda. Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi (C) welcomed on arrival in Tunis January 30, 2011/Louafi Larbi

Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi (C) welcomed on arrival in Tunis January 30, 2011/Louafi Larbi

* Ghannouchi is a respected Muslim scholar who went into exile in London in 1989. Now 69, Ghannouchi is widely considered to be a moderate who believes that Islam and democracy are compatible.

Tunisian Islamists show strength at chief’s return

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(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.

Analysis: What role for the Islamists in the new Tunisia?

tunisia flag (Photo: Shadows of protesters on the Tunisian flag, in Tunis January 15, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)

For years they were jailed or exiled. They were excluded from elections, banned from politics, and played no visible role in Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. But in the brave new world of multi-party politics, moderate Islamists could attract more followers than their secular rivals like to admit.

And the downfall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s police state may leave Tunisia open to infiltration by extremists from neighboring Algeria, where war between authorities and Islamists has killed 200,000 people in the last two decades.

“The Islamist movement was the most oppressed of all the opposition movements under Ben Ali. Its followers are also much greater in number than those of the secular opposition,” said Salah Jourchi, a Tunisian expert on Islamic movements. “Its effect could be large.”

Tunisian Islamist leader says he’ll return from exile

tunis (Photo: Protesters in Tunis January 14, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)

The leader of a banned Tunisian Islamist movement has said he would return in the next few days from exile in London after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who ran the country for 23 years, was forced out.

Tunisian authorities outlawed the Ennahda, or Renaissance, movement in the early 1990s after accusing it of a violent plot to overthrow secular rule. But the movement said it is non-violent and the victim of government repression.

“I am going to go back very soon,” Rached Ghannouchi told Reuters in an telephone interview at the weekend. “I haven’t decided when yet, but possibly in the days to come.”