- Associated Press - Sunday, January 30, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia | The leader of a long-outlawed Tunisian Islamist party returned home Sunday after two decades in exile, telling the Associated Press in his first interview on arrival that his views are moderate and that his Westward-looking country has nothing to fear.

Rachid Ghanouchi and about 70 other exiled members of Ennahdha, or Renaissance, flew home from Britain two weeks after autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced from power by violent protests.

At the airport, thousands of people welcomed him, cheering and shouting “God is great!” and drowning out his attempt to address the crowd with a megaphone.

Mr. Ghanouchi rejected any comparison to more radical figures, including the hard-line father of the Iranian Revolution.

“Some Western media portray me like [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, but that’s not me,” Mr. Ghanouchi told the AP.

Rachid Ghanouchi (center) addresses supporters shortly after arriving in Tunis, Tunisia, on Sunday. The leader of a Tunisian Islamist party was long outlawed by authorities. (Associated Press)
Rachid Ghanouchi (center) addresses supporters shortly after arriving in Tunis, Tunisia, on ... more >

During 23 years in power, Tunisia’s ousted president cracked down on opponents, including proponents of political Islam, jailing them and sending many into exile. As Tunisians protested over corruption and repression, Mr. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14.

With Mr. Ben Ali gone, Ennahdha has moved quickly to carve out a place in the political scene, taking part in demonstrations and meeting with the prime minister.

Some Tunisians fear that a revival of Islam could hurt their hard-won gains and quality of life, or inspire an extremist movement like the al Qaeda-linked network that has waged an insurgency in neighboring Algeria.

But, while Ennahdha was branded an Islamic terrorist group by Mr. Ben Ali, it is considered moderate by scholars. Experts say Mr. Ben Ali used a fear of Islamists to seduce Western allies keen for a bulwark against terrorism in a volatile region, and he won their blessing despite widespread repression.

Though the ban on Mr. Ghanouchi’s party hasn’t officially been lifted, the new interim government has been more tolerant of it.

Mr. Ghanouchi said he wants his party to help Tunisia carry out democratic reforms, though he is not interested in standing in elections expected in upcoming months.

“I am not going to run for president of Tunisia, nor as a minister nor as a parliamentarian,” he said in an interview at his brother’s home, where family members celebrated with a festive meal of couscous.

Another long-exiled opponent — Moncef Marzouki, a secular leftist and human rights activist — was there to welcome him.

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.