TUNIS: Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi is set to return to his homeland on Sunday from London after more than 20 years in exile, following the ousting of authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ghannouchi’s historic return comes as the new government installed after Ben Ali’s downfall unveiled unprecedented democratic freedoms including lifting media controls, releasing political prisoners and registering banned parties. The Islamist leader still officially has a life sentence from the old regime hanging over him for plotting against the state but in practice other convicted exiles have been able to return without any hindrance in recent days. The government has drawn up an amnesty, which still has to go to parliament. Members of Ghannouchi’s Ennahdha (Awakening) movement, which was banned under Ben Ali, are expected to come to Tunis airport to greet him. Spokesmen for Ghannouchi have said the leader is not expecting to return “triumphantly” and wants to return simply as “a free man”. He said earlier that he plans to let younger people take over Ennahdha. He has also emphasised that he does not seek the presidency but wants to turn his movement — which is still officially banned — into a political party that will take part in the country’s first democratic elections. Tunisia’s law prohibits any political parties based on religious grounds. Ghannouchi founded Ennahdha in 1981 inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood but says it is now more like Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. Some feminist groups however are worried that Ghannouchi’s return signals 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. Ghannouchi, 69, fled Tunisia shortly 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.
An Egyptian news report has identified Rashid Ghannouchi (many spelling variations) as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood “abroad.” Ghannouchi is the leader in-exile of the Tunisian Islamist movement known as Nahada (aka Ennahda, Al Nahda) and can best be described as an independent Islamist power center who is tied to the global Muslim Brotherhood by his membership in the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) and his important position in the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), both organizations led by Global Muslim Brotherhood Youssef Qaradawi. Al-Ghannouchi is also one of the founding members of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), a Saudi organization closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and dedicated to the propagation of “Wahabist” Islam throughout the world. Ghannouchi is known for his thinking on the issue of Islam and citizenship rights.
In 1994, scholar Martin Kramer reported on the extremist background of Al-Ghannouchi. According to that report:
Assuming a valid distinction can be made between Islamists who are “extremist” and “reformist,” Ghannouchi clearly belongs to the first category. Since his last visit to the United States, he has openly threatened U.S. interests, supported Iraq against the United States and campaigned against the Arab-Israeli peace process. Indeed, Ghannouchi in exile has personified the rejection of U.S. policies, even as he dispatches missives to the State Department.
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