From Dissident to President

Moncef Marzouki, Grant Awarded 2001

Protester taking a break during Tunisia’s Arab Spring © 2011 Alex Majoli/Magnum Photo
Protester taking a break during Tunisia’s Arab Spring © 2011 Alex Majoli/Magnum Photo

The first time Moncef Marzouki tried to become president of Tunisia, it didn’t end well. In 1994, he sought to run against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was seven years into what turned out to be a 24-year, iron-fisted reign. Marzouki was thrown in prison for his pains. By 2011, things had changed dramatically. The Arab Spring had deposed Ben Ali, and Marzouki, a doctor and human rights activist, was elected to the constituent assembly, and then as transitional president, a post he held until the end of December 2014. He is the only Hellman-Hammett grantee to have served as president of his country.

Marzouki grew up in an anti-establishment household. When Tunisia gained its independence in 1956, his father opposed the “father of the nation,” Habib Bourguiba, who ruled the country for 30 years. Marzouki was only 11 years old when his family chose to go into exile in Morocco.

Trained as a doctor in France, Marzouki also spent many years in exile in Paris, where he could be seen jogging diligently around the Parc Montsouris in the 14th arrondissement. The author of nearly 20 books in Arabic and French, he was successively attracted by the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, then by the Marxist ideals of socialism, but grew disappointed by both. He became president of the Arab Commission for Human Rights and experienced frequent harassment, jail and exile as a result of his human rights activism.

Marzouki after signing Tunisia’s new constitution © 2014 Getty Images

As president, he struggled to find a balance between the democratic wishes of the youth and the Islamist strength of the Ennahda party, which held a majority in parliament. He asserted his Arab roots by never wearing a Western necktie, but rather a traditional Berber burnous, or white woolen cloak, during official ceremonies. In 2014, he lifted a years-old state of emergency, and cut his own pay by two-thirds.

After a new constitution came into effect, Marzouki won only 46 percent of the direct vote, and went into semi-retirement.


Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber has been editor and publisher of more than 15 publications in France and Europe, currently CLÉS magazine. He is vice-chair of the board of Human Rights Watch and chair of its Paris Committee.

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