Tunisia: The Arab Spring’s first president, almost

While there is hope that Tunisia’s first democratically elected president marks a fresh start, only time will tell if he can satisfy the expectations of his people.

On January 14, Ben Ali fled Tunisia bringing an end to 55 years of continuous dictatorship dating back to the French occupation. Today, December 12, less than one year later, Tunisia has a new president: Moncef Marzouki, a Human Rights activist and leader of the secular center-left Congress for the Republic (CPR) party. Marzouki is only the third President in the history of the Tunisian Republic, and the first democratically elected president in the post-revolution era. 

Marzouki studied medicine at the University of Strasbourg (France). Returning to Tunisia in 1979, he founded the Center for Community Medicine in Sousse and the African Network for Prevention of Child Abuse, also joining the Tunisian League for Human Rights.

Protesters in Tahrir Square on election day President Macef Marzouki of Tunisia

When the government cracked down violently on the Islamist Ennahda Movement in 1991, Marzouki confronted Tunisian President Ben Ali calling on him to adhere to the law. In 2001, he founded the Congress for the Republic Party. This was banned in 2002, but Marzouki moved to France and continued running it. 

The Constituent Assembly of Tunisia, elected on October 23 to govern the country and draft a new constitution, elected Marzouki as the President of the Tunisian Republic, with 155 votes for, 3 against, and 42 blank votes. Blank votes were the result of a boycott from the opposition parties, who considered the new “mini-constitution” to be undemocratic. 

His appointment follows a week of animated debate within the Constituent Assembly focused on the formation of Tunisia’s provisional constitution.

The Constituent Assembly opened the floor last week for presidential candidacy according to the conditions of an interim law related to the division of powers which indicates that the Tunisian President must fulfill the following conditions: “To be a Tunisian Muslim, non-carrier of a foreign nationality, born to a Tunisian father and mother and to be an adult of 35 years old at least.” 

The adopted constitution, containing 26 articles, is known informally as the “mini-constitution,” and it delineates the roles and entitlements of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of the interim government. The document will expire following the administration of general elections, potentially within the year.

It should be highlighted here that the Congress for the Republic, which won the second highest number of seats in the October election, collecting 29 seats out of 217 seats at the Constituent Assembly, had formed a coalition with the Ennahda Islamist Party (highest number of seats) and the Ettakatol (third highest number of seats) led by Mustfa Ben Jaafer, currently the head of the Constituent Assembly.

Thus the presidential appointment has its fair share of critics, for even though there is broad agreement that Marzouki has a relatively clean past, the appointment was steamrollered through due to the prior agreement within the coalition to appoint him. Other voices were not given an opportunity to fully weigh in and the constitutional promises have yet to be consolidated into the government.

Myriam, a Tunisian student studying Political Sciences in Paris summed up the discontent over Marzouki’s appointment in a poignant tweet which said: “interim government is limited by no time frame, the executive board is not elected and the constitution isn’t open for confirmation through a referendum. Welcome to democracy.”

So while there is hope that Tunisia’s first democratically elected President marks a fresh start, only time will tell if he can satisfy the expectations of his people.

About the author

Kacem is a Tunisian activist, blogger and Social Media enthusiast from Kairouan, a semi-rural city in the interior of Tunisia. He has a strong belief in human rights, especially the fact that minorities rights shouldn't be subject to public vote and that they must to be protected from the majority.