The Barefoot Doctor in Tunisia’s Presidential Palace

The enigmatic Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki, draws criticism and praise. But will this doctor-turned activist-turned political leader push the limits of power as far as he can, or will he succumb to pressures from Ennahda and stand down to his convictions?

Moncef Marzouki, the new Tunisian president, is a mystery-a political and psychological enigma. This 66 year-old physician, human rights activist, inflexible opponent to Ben Ali’s dictatorship, who came to dissent through force of circumstances, is one of the most controversial political figures on the Tunisian political scene. Captivated by his intransigence and his quixotic demeanor, his followers, mostly young and often passionate, like to point out his diehard oppositional pedigree and his fierce determination to put an end to the symbols and heritage of the past. They see him as a man ruptured from the old regime.

Don Quixote or acrimonious demagogue?

Just as numerous as his supporters, his critics depict him as an acrimonious demagogue and blame him for sacrificing his humanist and democratic convictions to an unnatural alliance with the Ennahda Islamists. They think of him-with a mix of condescendence and affliction-as a “useful idiot” and predict for him a fate similar to that Abulhassan Banisadr [the first president of the Iranian Islamic Republic, an ally of Ayatollah Khomeini until Khomeini abruptly had him deposed].

On the other hand, many analysts have their doubts regarding Marzouki. Considered to be “the leftist Arabist,” he fiercely attacked his non-Islamist adversaries and became one of the most striking figures of the electoral campaign. Will this vindictive orator be able to rise above the fray in order to fit into the shoes of a president? With the meager powers conceded to him, will Marzouki be anything else but a puppet president?

Escaping a beating

In the meantime, one thing is certain, Moncef Marzouki succeeded in achieving an incredible turnaround. He returned to Tunisia as early as January 18th after nine years of chosen exile in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny. His comeback occurred in relative anonymity; only a few dozen of his partisans were present to welcome him at the airport. This was nothing compared to the human tide, a few days later, which appeared for the arrival of the other grand pariah of Tunisian politics, Rached Ghannouchi, the historical leader of the Ennahda Islamists who was exiled in London.

Later, his incursion at the Kasbah Square turned into a fiasco. People shouting “Get out! Get out!” welcomed Marzouki, as thousands of demonstrators protested the temporary government that followed the downfall of Ben Ali. As a result, he was nearly beaten and then promptly smuggled out of the crowd.

In the weeks that followed, he absorbed, without flinching, the rebuffs of the Tunis microcosm and hurtful comments about his neglected appearance, including those about the eye-glasses that eat up his entire face. Everyone agreed on one thing: Marzouki was a has-been and his party, the CPR (Congress for the Republic), was an empty shell. At that time, none would have bet a penny on the presidential destiny of a man who looked so downtrodden.

Nothing could discourage this hypersensitive soul, hardened by exile and harassment, who was among the very first people to rise up publicly against the police abuses of the Ben Ali regime. While Moncef Marzouki’s parents were originally from Douz, a small town to the south, he was born in Grombalia, not far from Tunis and was sent to the best school in the country, the Sadiki School. In this bilingual establishment, founded in 1875 by the great reformer Kheireddine Pacha, Marzouki learned how to express himself with great fluency in both Arabic and French. He discovered the classics and devoured Dostoevsky’s books.

After the independence, his family took forced refuge in Tangiers because of his father’s support of Salah Ben Youssef, archenemy of Bourguiba. He finished his school curriculum at the French Lycee, then took a scholarship to study psychology at the Strasbourg Faculte de Lettres. A year later, he started his medical studies, specializing in neurology, and then branching off into community and family medicine. His goal was to be of service to others, particularly the poor.

Married to a French woman-who he divorced fifteen years ago-and as the father of two daughters, Myriam and Nadia, he decided in 1979 to return to Tunisia where he settled down in Sousse.

Imperceptibly, the family doctor turned into a social activist. He published writings, columns and essays. He soon joined the TDH (the Tunisian League for Human Rights). Marzouki became the country’s great torture-preventer and was then ruthlessly pushed out of the League during its convention in February 1994, a victim of what was called his “suicidal intransigence.”

In October 1994, soon after his ejection from the League, he announced, out of bravado, that he was a candidate for the presidential election. This was the ultimate transgression and the beginning of his long journey across the political desert. A few weeks later he was arrested, then freed but harassed and stripped of his passport. His telephone was perpetually out of order. His close friends became more and more sparse and acquaintances crossed the street to avoid him. Still, it was out of question for him to make a compromise. In July 2000, politics overtook his civilian life when he was fired from his job as public health doctor. He became a “doctor without patients, a writer without readers and the head of family without a family,” according to the famous quote by the writer Taoufik Ben Brik. Accused of disseminating false information, he was sentenced to one year of prison, which went un-served because the ministry did not want the public to view him as a martyr or public symbol and thus appealed his sentence. In September 2000, his sentence was reduced to a suspended one-year sentence.

In the meantime, with a handful of leftist friends, he founded his own political party, the CPR, the Congress for the Republic.

None would have bet on him

After the downfall of the hated regime, when Marzouki returned to Tunisia, none would have bet on him to become president. The man whom people say has become bitter is too much of a contrast: too exalted, too intransigent, too austere and too trenchant. He gives the impression of being an intellectual lost in a world which is not his, a world of codes he cannot master: politics and the art of a realistic compromise.

But more than anything else, he stands alone. His political movement remains stalled. Although he has some networks in the Tunisian diaspora in France, he doesn’t enjoy any actual presence in Tunisia. Plus, the intelligentsia and the business world feel defiant towards this character that professes radicalism and opened the doors of his party to redeemed Islamists and Ennahda defectors. Marzouki, who took a vow of poverty, does not give a damn about the elite classes. Determined to run his campaign alone, he dreams of enrolling the young and the unemployed, the excluded, the families of the martyrs and the injured of the revolution, all categories that go unrecognized among the well polished political parties born during the legal opposition to the regime, whether it be Ahmed Nejib Chebbi’s PDP or Mustapha Ben Jaafar’s FDTL or the Ettajdid of Ahmed Brahim.

Railing against the secularist francophone leftists

In the beginning of the campaign, odds were against him. Marzouki was inaudible. The polls credited him with only one or two percent of the votes. Then his speeches became more and more radical. He pleaded for an annulment of the Tunisian exterior debt, which he said was “odious.” The doctor turned into an implacable prosecutor with his Fouquier-Tinville accents against the political money that corrupted the campaign. He reserved his most lethal arrows for the old opposition parties whom he accused of having become hostages of the reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces. He castigated the “old secularist obsessed francophone left that is totally disconnected from the true problems of the Tunisian society.” But it was out of question for him to demonize the Islamists, whom he called “authentic patriots” with whom it was possible to make agreements and walk with hand-in-hand.

On October 23rd, the results achieved by the CPR opened the doors to Marzouki’s presidency. With 29 seats, his party was the second political force in the country behind Ennahda, who won 89 seats. He beat the FDTL and the PDP. Nobody imagined the results of the election would be in his favor.

During the negotiations, Marzouki stayed faithful to his reputation and revealed himself to be a tough contender. He vetoed renewing Habib Essid as the Minister of the Interior, a position that Ennahda wished to maintain as a way of reassuring the security agencies. He wrested the presidency away from Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the leader of the FDTL, who was already imagining himself settled in the Carthage Palace. But he had to make some concessions. The true chief executive will be the Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, whose party, Ennahda, will preside over all the sovereignty ministers. Disoriented by the way the transactions were heading, some CPR activists are beginning to wonder if the pact with the Islamists will, with time, reveal itself to be a fool’s bargain.

Samy Ghorbal