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TUNISIA: Exiled Muslim leader arrives home after 22 years to throngs of supporters

January 30, 2011 |  9:18 am

Could Rachid Ghannouchi be Tunisia's Khomeini?

The exiled sheik returned to his homeland on Sunday after the country's Western-backed secular autocrat was ousted by a nationwide popular uprising.

Over 1,000 supporters turned out at the airport in Tunis to welcome Ghannouchi, the leader of the Nahda Islamist party, which was outlawed and brutally suppressed by ousted President Zine el Abidine ben Ali after it came in second to the ruling party in the 1989 elections with 17% of the vote, according to the BBC.

Although Ghannouchi has been living in exile in London for over two decades, his party and supporters were able to organize an impressive turnout with crowds chanting religious hymns and Koranic verses.

Many people who spoke with Babylon & Beyond said they support Ghannouchi as a victim of the former regime, but they don't see him as the next Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the fiery cleric who led Iran's revolution in 1979.

"The Tunisian people support people who have been oppressed," said Amel Mahri, a French teacher from the southern city of Sidi Bouzid, where the protest movement began after Mohamad Bouazziz, a young man working as a fruit vendor, set fire to himself in protest of continued police harassment.

"We are Muslims, we want to live, but those who are against us and think we will become like [Osama] bin Laden are wrong," she said.

Mahri had travelled to the capital along with five other members of her family aged 9 to 60.

Moncef Alibi, 60, pointed to Turkey as an example of a Muslim country that has struck a balance among democracy, tolerance and Islamic identity.

"Today, Turkey welcomes everyone, regardless of his or her religion," Alibi said. "This is message for the United States and Western countries: He who knows Islam knows democracy. We did not need the West to teach us."

Ghannouchi has said in numerous statements that he is returning to Tunisia as a citizen and has no political ambitions.

Nabil Zoughlani, a 36-year-old math teacher from Beja, said he, like many Tunisians, did not identify with Ghannouchi's politics but sympathized with him as a victim of repression.

"I'm not a member of Nahda but I was touched by his story," he said. "He was tortured and exiled, and the regime tried several times to kill him. He has the right to live in Tunisia. How could this man who has lived in Britain for 20 years be a terrorist?"

Ghannouchi had his critics, however.

A group of 20 to 30 women formed a counterprotest outside the airport's main entrance carrying signs that read "No to Terrorism" and "Welcome Free Tunisians."

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-- Sihem Hassaini in Tunis, Tunisia, and Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Sheik Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Nahda movement, returns to Tunisia after 22 years in exile. He was greeted by at least 1,000 supporters. Credit: Reuters

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