Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi returns to Tunisia. What's his next move?

Moderate Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia from exile Sunday, insisting that he's a democratic Islamist leader and that he will not run for office.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda movement, talks to supporters upon his arrival in Tunis, Sunday. Thousands of Tunisians turned out to welcome home the Islamist leader whose return from 22 years of exile marks a powerful symbol of the change that has swept the country this month.

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Rachid Ghannouchi says that he will not run for office, though his movement will enter democratic politics.

In the aftermath of the protests that toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali and sparked upheaval across the Arab world, Tunisia's foremost Islamist leader returned to his homeland on Sunday after 22 years of exile.

Reuters reports that Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the the Islamist movement Ennahda, flew from London to Tunisia Sunday, setting foot in his homeland for the first time since 1989, when Mr. Ben Ali exiled him. Mr. Ghannouchi said he and Ennahda plan to help build Tunisia's new democracy.

"Our role will be to participate in realising the goals of this peaceful revolution: to anchor a democratic system, social justice and to put a limit to discrimination against banned groups," Ghannouchi told Reuters a day before his return.

"The dictator has fallen and I want to be in the country," he said.

Ghannouchi was exiled by Ben Ali in 1989, two years after Ben Ali seized power. Ennahda, which experts call a moderate Islamist group, was the strongest opposition group at the time of Ghannouchi's exile, but did not play a significant role in the protests this month that led to Ben Ali's ouster.

Women leaders protest Ghannouchi's return

Concern about Ghannouchi's then-pending return sparked protests by Tunisian women Saturday, reports Agence France-Presse. Hundreds of women, including "actresses, university lecturers, and human rights campaigners," took to the streets in Tunis to show their resolve to maintain the well-established rights of women in the country.

"We want to send an important message to the Islamists, especially those from the Ennahdha movement -- that we are not ready to pull back on or abandon our rights," said Sabah Mahmoudi, a university lecturer, told AFP.

Cabinet reshuffle

But Ghannouchi returns as the upheaval in Tunisia continues to wind down. Al Jazeera reported Thursday that Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi (no relation to Rachid Ghannouchi) reshuffled his cabinet for the second time since Ben Ali's ouster, removing several ministers whom protesters opposed as being a continuation of Ben Ali's government. Prime Minister Ghannouchi said that the new cabinet was "a temporary government with a clear mission - to allow a transition to democracy," and its members had been determined in consultaion with all political groups involved.

Although Rachid Ghannouchi has said that he plans to make Ennahda into an active Tunisian political party, he says he has no plans to run for office himself. In an interview with the Financial Times earlier this month, he said that "I have no political aspirations myself, neither for standing as a minister, for parliament or president. Some are presenting me as a Khomeini who will return to Tunisia – I am no Khomeini."

A pro-democracy Islamist?

He also told the Times that he believes democracy and Islam are compatible, noting that he himself came under criticism from Islamists for his pro-democracy stance.

[When I first came to the UK], I gave a lecture Manchester University in which I said democracy should not exclude communists. At the time, this was rejected strongly by Islamists who saw it as accepting atheism. I said that it is not ethical for us to call on a secular government to accept us, while once we get to power we will eradicate them. We should treat people like-for-like. As the Prophet Muhammad said, one should wish for his brother what he wishes for oneself. And Kant said you should use your behavior as your base for treating the rest of humanity.

At the time this was alien to political thought [among UK-exiled Arab Islamists] and I was described as a secularist and part of a secularist movement because I called for democracy that does not exclude anyone.

In the interview, Ghannouchi likened Ennahda to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, another party with both an Islamist tradition and democratic leanings.

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