January 18, 2011 / 2:58 PM / 7 years ago

Tunisian exile savors freedom on return home

TUNIS (Reuters) - Ecstatic supporters greeted exiled Tunisian opposition leader Moncef Marzouki as he returned home on Tuesday, marking a dramatic contrast to his last visit when he was hounded out by secret police.

Marzouki, head of the small Congress for the Republic party, was among the first exiled opposition figures to head home after a wave of unrest toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's leader for over 23 years.

A crowd of about 200 Marzouki followers sang and cheered when he emerged into the arrivals area of the Tunis-Carthage airport after flying in from Paris.

"The revolution must continue!" were his first words to the crowd. Women kissed him, and a group of male supporters gave him a Tunisian flag and lifted him on to their shoulders.

"Today is a day of great victory because I can be in a free country," Marzouki said.

"There is a feeling of national pride ... It is a great joy to see that the big mafia that ruled this country and was supported by certain people, is now fleeing, while now I, who had to flee, who was a fugitive, am welcomed by my people."

He said the first thing he would do was travel to the town of Sidi Bouzid, about 300 km (185 miles) southwest of Tunis, to visit the grave of Mohamed Bouazizi.

A young unemployed man, Bouazizi set himself on fire -- and later died -- in protest at his treatment by the authorities, an act that began the wave of protests which forced Ben Ali out.

Marzouki, like most other Ben Ali opponents, is known only to a small group of intellectuals and supporters because for years the Tunisian media was blocked from giving them any coverage and they were not allowed to hold public rallies.

He told Reuters in Paris on Monday he was considering running in an early presidential election to choose a replacement for Ben Ali..

Marzouki initially fled Tunisia in the 1990s. He returned three years ago but left again about two months later, saying he could not operate because of harassment by the authorities.

During that period, hundreds of plain clothes police officers surrounded his home and office around the clock and followed him to meetings.

He decided to return soon after Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi promised new elections, the restoration of democracy and the removal of restrictions on political parties.

But Marzouki's triumphant return was clouded by a belief among opposition supporters that the changes have not gone far enough. Ghannouchi himself was part of the Ben Ali administration, as were many ministers in the new government.

In the center of Tunis on Tuesday, police used tear gas to try to disperse a crowd of several hundred protesters who were demanding that the ruling RCD party relinquish power.

Supporters greeting Marzouki at the airport carried placards saying: "Free Tunisia! Out with the RCD!"

"I will do everything possible to ensure a real peaceful and democratic transition in this country," Marzouki said. "We need to have a real coalition government ... and to hold real elections."

Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by David Stamp

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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