January 29, 2011 / 4:54 PM / 8 years ago

Leading Tunisian Islamist wants democracy

TUNIS (Reuters) - The head of Tunisia’s main Islamist movement will return from exile Sunday to help set up a “true multi-party system” in the country from which he was exiled 22 years ago, he told Reuters Saturday.

Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi said his Ennahda party would work for the goals of the popular revolt that forced president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee Tunisia earlier this month.

Ennahda, he said, would likely contest a fair legislative election, though a decision had yet to be taken.

“We will take part if the conditions for fair elections exist,” he said adding however that Ennahda’s participation might be limited. Ben Ali exiled Ghannouchi and cracked down on Ennahda in 1989 after it made a strong showing in elections. Ghannouchi has lived in London ever since. He collected a new Tunisian passport from the country’s embassy in London Thursday.

“The deputy ambassador gave me a warm welcome,” he said.

The interim government, which took office after Ben Ali fled on January 14, lifted a ban on parties and freed political prisoners including followers of Ennahda, Arabic for ‘Renaissance’.

“Our role will be to participate in realising the goals of this peaceful revolution: to anchor a democratic system, social justice and to put a limit to discrimination against banned groups,” Ghannouchi said by telephone.


Tunisia has imposed a secular order since independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, the independence leader and long-time president, considered Islam a threat to the state.

Ben Ali eased restrictions on the Islamists when he seized power in 1987, before cracking down on them two years later.

Ghannouchi said: “The dictatorship weakened all of Tunisian society: politics, civil society. The only space was for the police. Now civil society is trying to rebuild itself.

“We are taking part so we can move from a one-party system to a true multiparty system without corruption or oppression.”

The interim government has yet to set a date for elections. Ghannouchi said his party, founded in 1981, would not contest a presidential election.

“My brothers inside the country have said they do not want to run for this position,” he said, echoing public statements by other Ennahda figures.

Ghannouchi, 69, said he had no desire to seek a state position himself. “There is another generation, a younger generation, qualified for these positions,” he said.

Experts on Islamist movements say Ennahda’s ideology is more moderate than that of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s.

Ghannouchi likened Ennahda to Turkey’s AK Party, an Islamist-rooted party that has ruled since 2002.

“My books were translated into Turkish and had a great impact on the Turkish Islamist movement,” Ghannouchi said.

“Our movement is a national independence movement. It believes in democracy: that Tunisia must be governed by real, complete democracy, with no exceptions, no oppression, no restrictions on freedom of expression and real judicial independence.”

Editing by Maria Golovnina

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