Moncif Al-Marzouki: The enemy within
Wrestling with rights and the meaning of life
photos: Ahmed Rushdi
"Human rights cannot be separated from politics."
Moncif Al-Marzouki, official spokesman of the National Tunisian Council for Freedoms, rubs the side of his face, crosses his legs and frowns as he sips tea on the terrace of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
But his grimace quickly wears off. A toothy grin is never far from his face. He takes in at a glance the sweeping views of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour.
Tunisia's foremost rights activist is about to return to his homeland and is understandably excited about meeting friends and family. And no, just for the record, he does not fear the wrath of the authorities.
He speaks at length about the pace of political reform in the Arab world. If it wasn't so pathetic you would have to laugh, he says.
"The spectre of absolute dictatorship seems to be inching closer, not fading away."
He talks of the hardships faced by Tunisia's rural poor, recalling his sojourn in the village of Al-Qalaa Al-Kubra, the Great Citadel, 15kms from the coastal city of Susa where Al-Marzouki worked with 20 paramedics and 60 nurses. He learned, he says, a great deal from the rural poor. He was raised in urban poverty, but it was the arena of rural public health that politicised Al-Marzouki.
He delves into the nooks and crannies of everyday life in Tunisia. The economy is collapsing and the political climate discouraging. Then, suddenly, he veers off politics.
"Alexandria reminds me of Tunis, of the Mediterranean cities of the Maghreb. It is very different from Cairo," he muses.
Al-Marzouki has always been controversial, and the controversy, as often as not, seems to centre on style rather than substance. He is brash, say his detractors. He has matured, say others.
So is he more mellow now?
"Absolutely not," he laughs softly. "For the past 10 years I have led a campaign to assert my right to stand as a presidential candidate. Why can't I aspire to be a presidential hopeful? I have a more legitimate claim to stand than the Tunisian president. He is standing for office for the fourth time. He should give others the chance to run the country."
So is Zein Al-Abidine Bin Ali here to stay? In all likelihood Bin Ali's re-election as Tunisian president in 2009 will be conducted in time-honoured fashion, with much fanfare and few votes. Which tends to suggest Al-Marzouki is not as much of a political threat to Bin Ali as many suppose.
Yet this presidential hopeful exudes confidence and self- assurance, and manages to do so without the slightest hint of arrogance. He seems genuine and down-to-earth, though without any suggestion of weakness or indecision.
In short, Al-Marzouki sounds electable.
It is not as if Al-Marzouki has spent a lifetime coveting the top job. Nor was his bid for the presidency conjured up to promote personal interests. There were -- and are -- colossal personal risks in his candidacy. He stood as a presidential candidate in 1994, and lost.
"Presidential and parliamentary elections in the Arab world are a big joke," he explains. "We have a saying: he [the politician] sells the monkey and laughs at the buyer[the electorate]."
Throughout the Arab world political establishments remain determined to whitewash the record of their governments, and Tunisia is no exception.
"The country is run as the personal fiefdom of President Bin Ali," says Al-Marzouki. And despite promulgating a series of increasingly repressive laws designed to make life harder for dissenting voices, the West seems determined to turn a blind eye to the gross human rights abuses committed in yet another police state.
Bin Ali has been in office since 7 November, 1987. And Tunisians have yet to take to the streets in protest against his authoritarian rule.
Political apathy is all pervasive in Tunisia. "Nobody watches Tunisian TV. Everyone watches Al-Jazeera and other Pan-Arab satellite television channels."
"But people are voting with their feet," says Al-Marzouki. "Young Tunisians are trying to leave the country in droves and some pay a high price. Many are lost at sea trying to cross the Mediterranean. Inflation, unemployment and corruption are ruining the country and driving its youth overseas."
Al-Marzouki was raised in a political household. His father, who belonged to the Pan-Arab nationalist strand of the Tunisian anti- colonial struggle then headed by Saleh Bin Youssef, visited Egypt in the 1950s and was besotted with the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
"My father was a Nasserist, a Pan-Arabist," Al-Marzouki explains. "I am a secularist democrat. I am for social justice."
"My father was a man of both the pen and the gun. He lived and died in exile in Morocco. His generation fought for national self- determination and political independence. They struggled against colonial rule. My generation has a different task altogether. We fight against totalitarianism and authoritarian rule. We fight for freedom from state oppression."
It is a fight that could spell trouble not only for the Tunisian president, but for the entire Tunisian political establishment.
But not this time round. Al-Marzouki will not be campaigning for this month's presidential elections. "I can't stand this time round. The laws have been changed to ban me from standing for president," he says nonchalantly.
So after two decades at the helm it looks unlikely that Bin Ali will lose his job, and certainly not to a presidential hopeful. Alternative presidential candidates are in any case, Al-Marzouki explains, picked by the president.
Tunisian elections might not offer voters much choice, but they offer a semblance of democracy.
Tunisia's rulers, like many others, realise they must adjust their dictatorial and secretive style to something more in tune with the United States vision of Western-style multi-democracy. But while Al-Marzouki is all for multi-party competition, he realises that it is a good idea open to abuse.
Tunisia's regime sanctioned opposition parties that are hardly more popular than the ruling party. Indeed, they are an extension of the ruling party. The opposite side of the same coin. The Tunisian electorate knows all too well that the opposition parties will not shake up the Tunisian political system. And their response is simple. They don't vote.
Tunisian opposition parties have only 34 seats in the 182-seat parliament and two of those parties -- the Democratic Socialist Movement (13 seats) and the Democratic Unionist Party (seven seats) -- have called on their supporters to vote for Bin Ali in the forthcoming presidential elections.
Tunisia's official opposition parties have clearly chosen to stick to the pecking order to which they have become accustomed, with the consequence that disaffected Tunisians are shunning politics altogether.
As far Al-Marzouki is concerned the official opposition is a bunch of squabbling partisans. And the Islamists? "There is no real Islamist movement in Tunisia today," he states categorically.
Tunisia's secular opposition parties have never fought in anything that resembles a real election. Everything, even political pluralism, is geared towards enhancing presidential powers.
A constitutional referendum in May 2002 gave Bin Ali the right to run in this year's presidential elections and again in 2009 if he so desires. The key changes approved in the 2002 plebiscite, which drew the usual 99.52 per cent "yes" vote, raised the age limit for Tunisia's president 70 to 75 and also guaranteed immunity from prosecution.
Tunisia has a long history of authoritarian rule. Habib Bourguiba, president since independence from France in 1956, ruled the country with an iron fist until he was unceremoniously unseated by Bin Ali.
The Tunisian constitution, adopted on 1 June, 1959, was amended on 12 July 1988 and then again in 2000, changes that were designed to legitimise a president clinging onto office.
Bin Ali's policy, says Al-Marzouki, is three-pronged: "to remain indefinitely in power, to remain indefinitely in power, to remain indefinitely in power." The 1999 presidential polls he dismisses as an electoral fiasco. And he doesn't expect anything to change in this year's elections, in which the participation of hand-picked opposition candidates will offer a veneer of international respectability to a ruler who is seen as a key ally of the West in the fight against international terrorism.
I ask if he was concerned about the danger of challenging Bin Ali.
"The first time I was interrogated by the security forces I was eight years old," Al-Marzouki explains. "It was a plainclothes policeman. He shot a glance at my tattered shoes, big toe sticking out, and promptly bought me a new pair of shoes. It was a bribe of sorts. He wanted my cooperation. He wanted me to tell on my parents. He wanted to know my father's whereabouts. The next time he knocked on the door looking for me, my mother hid me and told him that I had spent the night at my grandmother's."
Al-Marzouki left Tunisia for exile in Morocco as an impressionable 15-year-old adolescent.
It was the first of three departures, and probably the most painful.
As a child he read voraciously. Sindbad, an Egyptian magazine, was his favourite. Al-Ayam, or (Days), the autobiography of Taha Hussein, was another book that was always by his side. He would read, and re-read it, summer after summer, each time discovering something new.
"There were always books and guns in our household," he recalls. "My father was a freedom fighter. A dedicated anti-colonial resistance fighter."
Eventually Al-Marzouki left Morocco for France, enrolling in the medical school at the University of Strasbourg. He studied and worked in France for 15 years before returning to Tunisia, where he wrote articles as a freelance writer for Al-Raai, (the Opinion), a leftist paper, and joined the Democratic Socialists, a party that quickly collapsed.
"I consider myself a second rate citizen in Tunisia," he says. "I want to live like a free citizen with full political and civil rights. No totalitarian or authoritarian rule is good, even when the leadership is of the calibre of Gamal Abdel-Nasser," he states categorically. "The 1967 Arab defeat drove that point poignantly home."