by Kaouther Larbi
TUNIS (AFP) – Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi returned to his homeland after more than 20 years in exile on Sunday, eyeing a political future for his Ennahda movement after the fall of Tunisia's regime.
British Airways told AFP his plane from London had landed in Tunis airport.
The 69-year-old said he was elated as he checked in for his historic flight at London's Gatwick airport, where he posed with a Tunisian flag and embraced relatives before boarding on his way to a country he has not seen since 1989.
"When I return home today I am returning to the Arab world as a whole," he told reporters, adding that Ennahda now planned to register officially as a political party and take part in the country's first democratic elections.
The new interim government installed in the north African state after the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a wave of social protests has allowed several key exiles to return despite bans on them from the old regime.
Ghannouchi, a former radical preacher who says he now espouses moderate ideals similar to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), was persecuted in Tunisia ever since founding his Islamist movement in 1981.
He still officially has a life sentence hanging over his head although the new government has drawn up an amnesty law for political convicts like Ghannouchi, which has to go before parliament for final approval.
"There is still confusion regarding the political situation.... The interim government is changing its ministers every day, it's not stable yet and its powers are not clear yet," Ghannouchi told reporters before leaving.
In contrast to his preachings from the 1970s in which he condemned the rise of secular ideas in his homeland and the advance of women's rights, Ghannouchi also said that Sharia Islamic law now had "no place in Tunisia".
"For many years we have agreed alongside the opposition parties common ground, including approving freedom of conscience, political pluralism... and we have agreed on a paper on gender equality," he said.
Hundreds of excited supporters came to greet Ghannouchi at Tunis airport.
"It's a great joy for us to be able to greet a comrade in arms," said Abdel Fattah Mourou, one of the founders of the Ennahda movement.
"This will normalise the situation for our movement, which has no rights."
Najwa, a teacher who said she was imprisoned for wearing an Islamic veil, said: "Everything that's said about him are lies... He's a moderate Islamist."
Marwa, a 20-year-old student, said: "He's an example for us. He will strengthen our faith and will speak to the media in our name."
Mohammed Mahfoud, 37, a trade unionist, said: "I have come to pay homage."
But the views on the streets of Tunis were heavily critical of Ghannouchi.
"He has not said what he plans to do. He could cause trouble and destabilise the upcoming elections," said Amenallah Darwish, a 29-year-old lawyer.
Ali, a bank employee who declined to give his last name, told AFP: "He's a profiteer, an opportunist. He's worse than Ben Ali."
Naima, a middle-aged woman in a veil, said: "Many people were imprisoned because of him, young people lost their future. No-one is happy about his return. He lived the good life in London while others paid a heavy price."
Some feminist groups are worried that Ghannouchi's return may signal a rise in political Islam that could endanger their hard-won rights.
"We're here to defend women's rights and to avoid a regression and to say that we're not ready to negotiate our liberty with the Islamists," Amel Betaib, a lawyer, said at a rally of hundreds of women in Tunis on Saturday.
Asked about some of this concern on Sunday, Ghannouchi was dismissive.
"This fear is only based on ignorance," he said, because Ben Ali's regime had "worked to distort all its opponents, described them as terrorists or being against modernity. All of these allegations have no basis in reality."
Ghannouchi fled Tunisia two years after Ben Ali came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987. In elections in 1989, which were heavily falsified, an Islamist-backed coalition still managed to win 17 percent of the vote.
Shortly after that, persecution of leading Islamists began and Ghannouchi fled first to Algeria and then to Britain. Hundreds of Islamist activists who stayed behind were thrown into prison, often on flimsy charges