The Arab World's Only Respected President — Thus Far
All eyes are on Moncef Marzouki, the newly elected president of Tunisia. He can be considered the only freely elected president or “leader” of an Arab country. To be sure, parliamentary elections do take place in Lebanon but the selection of the president there is done neither by the people nor by the members of parliament, who ostensibly and officially select the president. Foreign embassies have been “electing” Lebanese presidents for decades — long before the eruption of the Lebanese civil war.
Marzouki’s reputation is based on a long career of principled opposition to Ben Ali’s dictatorship. It is fair to say that Marzouki has more power (defined morally) than all other Arab leaders combined, although he came to the office after it was emptied of its powers by the newly victorious al-Nahda party, which barely got 40 percent of the vote.
Marzouki is being closely watched and he is fully aware of it. He has made some hitherto symbolic gestures: not wearing a suit and tie; proposing to sell presidential palaces; donating parts of his salary; appearing humble in speeches and interviews, and voiding the pompous ceremonies of power. But Marzouki needs also to be evaluated on substance.
Marzouki was known in the Arab world due to his appearances on Al Jazeera, particularly the widely watched Ittijah Muakis program. He has been a firm believer and promoter of progressiveness and secularism. But his ascension to power is marked by serious compromises: he has agreed to align himself with a very demagogic version of Islamism in the Arab world.
Al-Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi did not wait long before he started revealing his deceptive and underhanded ways. He sent his deputy to Washington, DC to prostrate himself before the Israeli lobby, and then went himself and prostrated further to the Israeli lobby. Worse, he agreed that his remarks would be off the record and then pleaded with the mouthpiece of Prince Salman, Asharq Alawsat, that his remarks against monarchies were misunderstood or misconstrued. Ghannouchi is enjoying power well beyond the 40 percent of the vote that he had obtained for his party.
Marzouki helped to hand total power to Ghannouchi and his Islamist movement, and even bestowed a degree of legitimacy on them with Tunisian secular voters. Marzouki is also partly responsible for the low results achieved by the Communist radicals in Tunisia — the same people who helped trigger and lead the Tunisian uprising while Islamists were home watching the developments on live TV.
Marzouki thus compromised on the major agenda of secularism (it is too soon to predict whether this alliance with al-Nahda will be historically compared to the alliance between the Tudeh Party and Khomeini in the Iranian revolution). Marzouki’s inaugural speech was good: he sent salutations to various Arab uprisings but also, notably, forgot to mention Bahrain, although he had declared his support for the Bahraini uprising prior to the election.
He mentioned Palestine, but in a recent problematic interview with Asharq Alawsat, he sounded too much like a typical Arab politician who is keen on appeasing GCC rulers. He even declared that Tunisia has no enemies: the Saudi sheltering of Ben Ali is now forgotten. He had some good words about Habib Bourguiba, although the latter was the one who had handpicked Ben Ali to be the head of his secret police. Marzouki even recently maintained that demonstrations in Tunisia can be bad for Tunisia.
It is too early to judge Marzouki, but one can distill conclusions from other historical examples. The lesson is clear: Arab intellectuals, especially those who lived abroad for various reasons, should avoid political power. Arab intellectuals should not seek leadership roles or the acclaim of the masses. They can be in the background. They should, as Marx urged philosophers, help change the world, and not interpret it. And since Arab intellectuals don’t have a power base, they are destined to reach power through a dangerous compromise: riding on the coattails of Islamists, whether in Tunisia or Syria, or anywhere else.