The Dissident President

President Moncef Marzouki

Moncef Marzouki’s over-sized glasses are his and his party’s trademark. Tunisia’s Congrés Pour la République (CPR) chose red spectacles to remind voters of their leader’s, at times, academic sensibilities about politics.  “Democratic politicians have long had difficulty explaining to ordinary people that even if they try to avoid politics, politics nevertheless affects them. Dictatorship in the Arab world has managed to create a generalised sense of apathy in the population, with the regimes not having any popular support but managing to work nonetheless as a result of the apathy of their populations.” he told Egyptian Newspaper, Al-Ahram.

As elaborate as the words are, Marzouki's calculations need to be clear. On his shoulders rests the leadership of the first great experiment in democratic politics in the modern Arab world.

He isn’t starting from a position of strength. While Tunisia’s first democratic elections went off smoothly, strikes and protests continue to plague the tiny African nation that made history almost a year ago today.

This time last year, in a small town, in a relatively unknown region of a small state, a Tunisian man tipped the scales of autocracy in the Middle East and began a cascading movement that changed the face of the region in less than a year.

Marzouki is inheriting that momentum. Not long ago Tunisia was best known for its beaches and mix of Italian, French and Arab cultures. Today Tunisia is heralded as a leader and example of democratic applications in the Arab world. Marzouki’s plan? Go big or go home. His first order of business as newly appointed President of Tunisia was to spend political capital and ask of his nation a six-month political truce including a moratorium on strikes and protests to prevent what he warns would be akin to committing “collective suicide.”

The challenges are considerable. Foremost, he must build democratic institutions quickly and slow political Islam’s advance. Tunisia is the litmus test and Libya and Egypt are watching closely.  Although such responsibility cannot be handled tepidly, Marzouki is confident: “If things aren’t working out within six months, I will submit my resignation”.

Leading Marzouki will be Prime Minister Hamad Jbeli. In October, voters handed victory to Jbeli’s Ennahda party and secured the most powerful post in Tunisia for the leader of moderate Islamist. Marzouki’s task will be answering to the demands of Tunisians on domestic affairs.

But Marzouki is both close to home on the domestic concerns of Tunisians and far from it. He is a veteran opposition figure and has been called a dogged defender of human rights. In 1980, he joined the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights and was unanimously elected chairman nine years later by its members. Five years into his tenure, supporters of former President Ben Ali forced him from the position, prompting Marzouki to symbolically run for the Presidency in 1994. For his audacity he was stripped of his passport, jailed, and ultimately forced into exile in France.

He grew the CPR from within France and continued to contest Ben Ali’S rule, returning to Tunisia when Ben Ali was toppled in January. His supporters praise his unwavering fight for democracy in Tunisia, and love his book, published in Arabic and French, ‘Dictators on Watch: A Democratic Path for the Arab World’. Marzouki’s critics, however, portray him as propped up by French patronage and shrewd political strategies.

Marzouki was born on July 7, 1945, in Grombalia, near Tunis, Tunisia’s capital and biggest city. Marzouki was a well-connected affluent student who studied medicine, neurology, and public health at the University of Strasbourg in France. He took up the life of an academic, teaching medicine at Tunisia’s University of Sousse from 1981 until 2000.

Strictly left-leaning in his politics (he traveled to South Africa in the early 1990s to study post-apartheid democratisation), in 2003 he alarmed his supporters by signing a political cop-operation agreement with Islamist party Ennahda that was markedly silent on secularism.

With Ennahda’s 89 deputies in the new parliament, and CPR’s second place holding with 29 seats, Marzouki now looks to some to be a shrewd political player willing to compromise on core issues to gain political ground. Just before the October elections, he told Agence France Presse that the old “secular and Francophone” left was “totally disconnected from the real problems of Tunisian society,” a statement that ignored his own French education and patronage.

When Marzouki took the oath of office on 13 December, his admirers and supporters held their breath as the 66 year-old choked back tears. For advocates of a modern Middle East that balances Islam and secular politics and values human rights, Marzouki embodies a convergence of the past and the future. For neighboring states studying his steps, there is considerable hope in Marzouki’s appointment.