Tunis, Tunisia – In a country still writhing with revolutionary sentiment and a deep distrust of politicians, this country’s president is no longer bubble-wrapped in the comfort of unquestioning obedience from a subservient population, unlike presidents of the past.
As a democrat and a human rights activist, Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki is an anomaly in a region accustomed to strongmen.
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|President Moncef Marzouki
Joined the Tunisian League for Human Rights in 1979, elected the organisation’s president in 1989
Imprisoned three times for his political activism during the 1990s
First ran for president in 1994, in an act of protest against Ben Ali
Founded the centre-left, secularist Congress for the Republic in 2001
Initiated the 2003 “Call of Tunis” agreement, bringing together parties opposed to the regime, including the Islamist Ennahdha
Returned from exile in France on January 18, 2011
Tunisia’s fourth president since independence, Marzouki was elected by the constituent assembly on December 13, 2011
“All my life, I’ve been a doctor, a human rights activist, so I’ve been amongst the people, I have spent time in prison and in exile,” he said, arguing that he would not allow himself to be transformed by the halls of power.
“I’ve lived a real life, and I continue to live a real life.”
The 67-year-old is also remarkable in his refusal to accept the deep secular-Islamist divide that was the undoing of Algeria’s would-be democratic transition two decades ago – a schism now undermining the foundations of Egypt’s revolution. It is a choice that has earned him considerable criticism from other secularists, including within his own movement.
“Those who criticise us for joining this coalition with Ennahdha [Tunisia’s Islamist party] don’t say what the alternative would have been,” he told Al Jazeera.
As we begin our interview in the Presidential Palace in Carthage, torrential rains hit the capital. The sky outside the palace window darkens, reflecting the mood of many Tunisians, desperate for their leadership to solve problems such as the rising price of living and high unemployment.
“Transitional years are very difficult,” he said, the strain showing on his face. “The pressures that have been placed on this government are considerable.”
It was because of the potential for Tunisia to become a model – rather than an exception – that the Royal Institute of International Affairs presented Marzouki with their prestigious annual Chatham House Award on Monday.
“As the first democratically elected Arab president and a life-long human rights activist known all over the Arab world, Dr Marzouki has provided an example for others in the region to follow,” the institute said in a statement published on its website.
Authoritarianism is a ‘disease’
The award comes nearly a year after he came to power, elected president by the country’s constituent assembly in a power-sharing deal between the centre-right Ennahdha, Marzouki’s centre-left Congress for the Republic (CPR) and centre-left Ettakatol, a coalition known as the Troika.
Ennahdha’s Hamadi Jebali might be prime minister, but it is Rachid Ghannouchi, the joint recipient of the award, who remains the movement’s philosopher and its undisputed leader.
A former physician, Marzouki is adamant that authoritarianism is “a disease” that must be treated.
Marzouki was also named by Foreign Policy magazine as the world’s second most influential thinker in 2012 in their annual list, published on Monday.
Alfred Stepan, a Columbia University expert in democratic transitions, said Tunisia was emerging as the first genuine democracy in the Arab world since the early 1970s.
“The possibility of democracy in Tunisia is very interesting,” he said, arguing that Marzouki and Ghannouchi deserved the award because of the success of their political transition, compared with Egypt, Libya or Syria.
“It will be really sad for the world if Tunisia does not make the transition, because many people will then say: ‘I told you so, Arabs can never have a democracy.'”
Marzouki’s alliance with Ennahdha is often portrayed by his critics as motivated by political opportunism, allowing him to ride the party’s coattails to power. Ennahdha won 89 out of 217 seats in the October 2011 election, while Marzouki’s CPR came in second with just 29.
He said, however, that rather than being personally motivated, the alliance was born out of a shared commitment to establishing a free and democratic political system, bringing together what he describes as moderate secularists and moderate Islamists.
|Moncef Marzouki en route for Sidi Bouzid on January 18, 2011, the day he returned from exile in France [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]|
“The Troika did not come into existence after the election, it was prepared for a very very long time, over a period of 20 years,” he said.
Anti-authoritarianism has indeed been a consistent feature of Marzouki’s trajectory. He travelled to India in his youth to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful resistance, and to South Africa in the early 1990s to study the transition from apartheid.
In his time as president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, he came head-to-head with Ben Ali, when he denounced the then-president’s brutality towards Islamists.
He then took his opposition a step further, daring to challenge Ben Ali in the 1994 presidential election.
The electoral bid was an act of civil disobedience, he said.
“It was to protest the fact that a citizen had the right to run only in theory. In practice, it was viewed as blasphemy.”
It led to his imprisonment – he was released only after intervention by Nelson Mandela – and subsequent exile in France.
Marzouki reached out to Ghannouchi, who had first sought refuge from Ben Ali regime’s repression in Algeria, an experience which led him to likewise favour political pluralism and to eschew political violence, and who was by that time living in exile in the UK.
The two men, though representing very different political ideologies, began a series of discussions that culminated in the Islamist movement joining others in the “Call of Tunis” agreement, signed in Aix-en-Provence in 2003.
The basis of Ennahdha’s inclusion was three key pledges: the equality of men and women, that the state would remain based in civic society rather than theology, and that it would be a democracy.
“For Ennahdha to be part of the [democratic] front, we needed reassurance about what they intended to do afterwards,” Marzouki said.
|“Our alliance with Ennahdha is a political one, and we have non-negotiable red lines.”
– President Moncef Marzouki
The Troika has not been without its challenges. The biggest to date came in June when Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of Ennahdha extradited Mahmoud al-Baghdadi to Tripoli.
Marzouki had strongly objected to the extradition of Baghdadi, Libya’s prime minister under Muammar Gaddafi, without a guarantee of a fair trial.
Jebali’s act, widely viewed as a successful attempt to undermine Marzouki’s authority, led to the president being mocked on social media as a “tartour” (puppet).
Marzouki wrote a resignation letter but was encouraged by those close to him not to resign because the country would likely be plunged into crisis as a result.
Instead, the president took his case to the administrative court, which in November found Jebali to have acted illegally.
“The administrative court has ruled in favour of the presidency; that Mahmoud [al-Baghdadi] should not have been extradited,” Marzouki said.
He said he continues to follow the case closely – Libya’s prime minister is next appearing in court on December 10.
Marzouki’s critics accuse him of naivety for trusting Ennahdha to stick to the agreed rules, arguing Ennahdha was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, pointing to the movement’s ultra-conservative faction.
But Marzouki rejected these assertions, arguing that, to the contrary, the coalition was about moderate secularists working with moderate Islamists to guarantee basic liberties were protected from extremists on either side of the political spectrum.
“Our alliance with Ennahdha is a political one, and we have non-negotiable red lines,” he said.
Differing perspectives on the menace posed to Tunisian society by a small but vocal number of “Salafist-jihadist” activists has caused tension between Ghannouchi and Marzouki in recent months.
After Marzouki criticised Ghannouchi for what appeared to be conciliatory comments made to Salafist leaders in a video leaked to media, the Ennahdha leader publically rebuked him, saying that he had only been elected with the support of his party.
|“I think this collaboration between Islamist and secularist parties around common democratic values is to be acknowledged and celebrated.“
– Alfred Stepan, democratic transition specialist
But the president remains firm that his party would only maintain its alliance if its partner does not give in to pressure from its ultra-conservative fringe to renege on any of the ground rules.
“For now, this [coalition] deal still stands and it’s up to Ennahdha to remain cohesive and to resolve its internal problems,” Marzouki said.
In spite of the tensions, Stepan said that the fact that former opposition politicians, notably Marzouki, Ghannouchi and Ettakatol’s Mustafa Ben Jaafar, began laying the foundations for the coalition government in 2003 and even earlier, establishing the new rules of the game, had meant progress had been relatively smooth in the months following the uprising.
“I think this collaboration between Islamist and secularist parties around common democratic values is to be acknowledged and celebrated,” he said, noting that for five decades, Tunisia had been ruling by a secular authoritarian regime.
“Nothing like [the consensus between Islamist and secularist politicians], zero, has been done in Egypt, up until today. That is why Egypt is in a much more precarious state than Tunisia.”
You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan