TUNIS (Reuters) – A leading Tunisian Islamist was due to return from 22 years in exile on Sunday in one of the most powerful symbols to date of the change that has swept the country since protesters ousted its president 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.
“Our role will be to participate in realizing the goals of this peaceful revolution: to anchor a democratic system, social justice and to put a limit to discrimination against banned groups,” Ghannouchi told Reuters a day before his return.
“The dictator has fallen and I want to be in the country,” he said.
Ennahda, which likens its ideology to that of Turkey’s ruling AK Party, was the strongest opposition force in Tunisia before the crackdown that forced Ghannouchi out of the country.
However, the Islamists did not appear to be a leading force in the wave of protests that toppled Ben Ali. It has yet to be seen whether Ghannouchi’s return can galvanise the party.
Protests have largely dried up in the last few days following the announcement of a new interim government purged of most of the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime.
The security forces have sought to restore order to the capital, where confrontations between shopkeepers and protesters have indicated dwindling support for demonstrators from Tunisians who want life to return to normal.
The interim government has yet to set a date for new elections. Ennahda officials have said the party will take part in parliamentary elections, and analysts say it could emerge as a major political force in the vote.
However Ennahda will not nominate a presidential candidate and Ghannouchi, 69, has said he does not want to run for any public office. His movement, founded in 1981, is seen as moderate by experts on Islamist movements.
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.
“We are taking part so we can move from a one-party system to a true multiparty system without corruption or oppression.”