In a visit to NYU Law on September 24, Dr. Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, president of the Republic of Tunisia, delivered an address on “The Past, Present, and Future of the Arab Spring.” The event, presented by the Law School’s Center for Constitutional Transitions, was introduced by Dean Trevor Morrison and Sujit Choudhry, Cecelia Goetz Professor of Law and faculty director of the center.
As the first country to experience one of a string of popular uprisings known collectively as the Arab Spring, Tunisia has seen its political fortunes come under intense international scrutiny since the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime in January 2011. In his lecture, Marzouki discussed what Morrison called the “tremendously important and timely topic” of the future of democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Before being elected president in December 2011, Marzouki spent many years in political exile, living in Morocco and France and later spending time in Tunisian prison for his human rights activities. He had a medical practice, worked in public health, and was a professor of public health at the University of Sousse. Marzouki worked to address infant mortality, child abuse, and the challenges faced by handicapped children, and founded the African Network for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect as well as the National Committee for the Defense of Prisoners of Opinion. He was also president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. During his exile in France he taught at the University of Bobigny and the University of Marne-la-Vallée.
Marzouki acknowledged the drastic change in perceptions of the popular revolution that had paved the way for his presidency. “The prompt shift in the discourse of international observers from a romantic enthusiasm to dark disappointment is quite mystifying,” he said. “Gloomy predictions about the failure of the Arab Spring, now relabeled the Islamist Winter, and lamentation about the current chaos in the whole region seem to have replaced nuanced analysis.”
Such commentary is oversimplified, he suggested, asserting that a diversity of situations had emerged from the Arab Spring and maintaining that the politics of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria were anything but synonymous.
All revolutions carry a price, Marzouki said, citing the more than 300 Tunisians who had died. Further, he added, those who initiate a revolution do not always benefit from it, counterrevolutions are inevitable and must be dealt with, and not all revolutions succeed. Even those that do, he said, may not achieve their goals immediately.
“When I heard that the Arab Spring is over, it’s already failed—how do you know it?” he asked. “You have to wait sometimes decades before having the right to say a revolution has failed.”
Marzouki cited economic instability caused by political uncertainty; the threat of domestic terrorism; the spillover of terrorism from Libya, Mali, and Syria; and the influence of the previous regime on sitting judges and the press as Tunisia’s chief challenges. He is an advocate of an international constitutional court that would have the power to invalidate elections, determine whether national constitutions are in accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and declare regimes illegitimate in the eyes of the international community in cases of “democracies at risk.”
The president of Tunisia deemed his country to be “at a crossroads.” Despite the aforementioned challenges, he said, Tunisia has solid government institutions, a disciplined and apolitical military, and a strong civil society that includes empowered women. He also counted Tunisia’s substantial middle class, a small and well-educated population, strong ties with Europe, and a fairly homogenous populace as elements favoring a stable democracy.
“Today the Arab world is one of the major sites of experimentation of this type of political regime,” he said. “Tunisia in particular is in the process of developing its own experiment, one that will possibly lead to a new solution and method and could be useful to other countries. This is what we hope. This is what we’re trying to do.”
Noting that other Arab Spring countries have fared less well politically, Marzouki acknowledged that even in his country, relatively well suited to democratization, “the transition is also complex, subtle, and difficult. Now imagine how difficult it is when you have a society like in Syria with a lot of religions, military involvement in politics for half a century, and so forth.... Tunisia is the last hope of the Arab Spring for many people, both inside and outside. This hope must prevail.”
Before his talk, Marzouki, accompanied by his chief legal adviser and a member of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, engaged in a Q&A with a dozen students in the Law School’s Constitutional Transitions Clinic. He invited any and all questions, and among the topics discussed was his proposal for an international constitutional court. Last April, 16 clinic students traveled to Tunisia to present their research on issues of constitutional design in the Arab region, and met with Marzouki at the presidential palace.
Posted on September 27, 2013