Thousands of Tunisians turned out on Sunday to welcome home an Islamist leader whose return from 22 years of exile marks a powerful symbol of the change that has swept the country this month.
Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda movement, has lived in London since he was exiled in 1989 by president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali, who was toppled on January 14 by popular protests that have sent political tremors across the Arab world.
The Islamists were Tunisia’s strongest opposition force at the time Ben Ali cracked down on them two decades ago but have not been seen to play a prominent role in the popular revolt. Analysts say they may re-emerge as a prominent political force.
The turnout at Tunis airport on Sunday was the biggest show of support for Ennahda in the past two decades, during which their supporters were jailed by Ben Ali.
“Allahu Akbar”, chanted the crowd, made up mainly of young men. “The Muslim people will not surrender.” Aiport security struggled to contain the throng, which spilled out into the car park.
Ennahda, which likens its ideology to that of Turkey’s ruling AK Party, says it is committed to democracy. Experts on political Islam say its ideas are some of the most moderate among Islamist groups.
“No to extremism, yes to moderate Islam!” and “No fear of Islam!” read banners held aloft by Ghannouchi’s supporters. A group of women stood ready to present him with flowers.