This week Tunisia’s constitutional assembly elected 66-year-old Moncef Marzouki, a former dissident who was imprisoned and then exiled in France, as Tunisia’s first president after the fall of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali. Marzouki told Tunisians he “represents a country, a people, a revolution ... I know you will hold me to account.” As president, he will be a progressive secular counterweight to the moderate Islamist party Al-Nahda (renaissance), now Tunisia's dominant political force.

Marzouki, who was elected with 153 of the 202 votes cast, will serve for a year until the constitution is rewritten and new elections held. About 40 opposition MPs cast blank ballots to protest against a vote they said was a farce that masked the fact that real power was now held by the Islamists. Najib Chebbi, head of the Progressive Democratic Party, called the presidency “just democratic window-dressing without any real functions”.

Marzouki was elected president as part of a power-sharing deal between Al-Nahda Party and its smaller secularist leftist coalition partners Al-Takkatol and Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic. Al-Nahda and its two allies won a majority in the constitutional assembly in elections in October.

Under the interim constitution, the president has limited powers. He determines Tunisia’s foreign policy in consultation with the prime minister, and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces but can only appoint or dismiss officers in consultation with the prime minister.

The more powerful prime ministerial post will go to Al-Nahda Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali, while Al-Takkatol leader Mustafa Ben Jaafar will become speaker of the constitutional assembly. The Al-Nahda party denies it has any intentions of turning Tunisia into an Islamic state, saying it will follow the example of Islamists in Turkey.

Since Marzouki issued a joint declaration with Al-Nahda in 2003, which made no mention of secularism as a doctrine, he has argued that progressive forces should unite with moderate Islamists in recognition of the importance of Islam in the Arab world. During the election campaign this year, he criticised the “old left, secular and Francophone, and totally disconnected from the real problems of Tunisian society.” He is author of Dictators on Watch: A Democratic Path for the Arab World.

Receive email notifications when new articles by Eric Walberg are posted.

Please enable the javascript to submit this form

Connect with Eric Walberg

Eric's latest book The Canada Israel Nexus is available here

'Connect with Eric on Facebook or Twitter'

Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

Purchase Eric Walberg's Books

Eric's latest book The Canada Israel Nexus is available here