Exiled Tunisia Islam leader returns with tolerance plea

The leader of a Tunisian Islamist party returned home yesterday after two decades in exile in London, saying that critics should not compare him to the father of Iran's Islamic Revolution and should accept his views are more moderate.

"Some Western media portray me like (Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, but that's not me," Rachid Ghanouchi said after returning to his North African country, where thousands of people welcomed him at the airport, some shouting "God is great!"

Mr Ghanouchi and about 70 other exiled members of Ennahdha, or Renaissance, flew home from Britain two weeks after autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced from power by violent protests.

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During 23 years in power, Ben Ali cracked down on opponents, including proponents of political Islam, jailing them and sending many into exile. Amid protests, Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia on 14 January.

With Ben Ali gone, Ennahdha has moved to carve out a place in the political scene, taking part in demonstrations and meeting the prime minister.

While Ennahdha was branded a terrorist group by Ben Ali, it is considered moderate by scholars. Though the ban on the party hasn't officially been lifted, the new interim government has been more tolerant of it.

Mr Ghanouchi said he is not interested in running in elections expected in months.

"I am not going to run for president, nor as a minister nor a parliamentarian," he said.

He compared his views to those of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite Erdogan's Islamist roots, he has been widely viewed as a pragmatist largely loyal to the legacy of Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who sought to create a secular, modern state.