Moncef Marzouki: His Life and Thought

A Dialogical Autobiography

The Arab Center has published Moncef Marzouki: His Life and Thought, a biographical dialogue with the former President of Tunisia, by Maati Munjib and Abdel Latif Hamamouche. Moncef’s political and intellectual experience is recounted in five chapters spanning memories of childhood and youth in Tunisia, Morocco and France, struggles of Arab and European students in late 1960s France, and political activism in opposition to the authoritarianism of President Habib Bourguiba and the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The conversation narrates a trajectory featuring imprisonment, expulsion from a university position, surveillance by secret police, the late 2010 outbreak of the Tunisian revolution, and counter-revolutionary attempts to thwart a democratic transition.

The first chapter depicts Marzouki's life journey from a poor village on the outskirts of Grombalia in the governorate of Nabeul south of Tunis, along with his readings, intellectual formation and struggles. A portrait of Arab nationalism’s influence, Marzouki observes that his photo of Gamal Abdel Nasser never left the wall of his room as a staunch Nasserist. At that time, his generation was either with the regime or against it and by virtue of his father's history of struggle, he was naturally against it. Political forces present at the time in Tunisia were either Arab nationalist or leftist – Islamists did not appear until the close of the seventies – unaware at that time about the human rights violations that prevailed during Nasser’s rule. The dominant image of Nasser was of the leader who stood up to Israel and imperialism, built the Aswan High Dam, and carried out land reform for the benefit of the impoverished peasantry. Information about the interrogations and intelligence operations only emerged later. Marzouki has come to consider him to be a part of the woeful Arab history that we know – though of the Arab dictators, he was the “least harmful.”

In the second chapter Marzouki indicates that former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had ordered his arrest and imprisonment but also, at the beginning of his rule, spared him the ordeal of judicial prosecutions. When he published Let My Country Awaken during the era of late President Bourguiba, he was arraigned on seven charges, including insulting state prestige and injury to the president of the republic. The Public Prosecution decided he had crossed a line in criticizing the narcissistic Bourguiba. Ben Ali seized power in November 1987 following his coup against Bourguiba, and the judge threw Marzouki’s case out; a sign that this man could bring about a political relaxation that might lead to democracy. He came to power during the period of Russian President Gorbachev's reforms, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and what became known internationally as the third wave of democratization that started from Eastern Europe, to spread to other continents.

In 1991 true conflict with Ben Ali was sparked by the suppression and torture of Islamists. Marzouki relates that during his time in France he became aware of the existence of a “non-ideological tribe” united through values and not race, religion or ideology: “For me it was a tremendous discovery to find Jews defending Palestinians, Europeans defending Arabs, and Arabs defending Africans. Not only did I discover human rights ideas intellectually, but also through a new fabric woven from cross-continental, cross-religious values – a “non-tribal tribe” founded on strong and shared values.”

In Chapter Three, Marzouki recounts that he did not expect Bouazizi's martyrdom through self-immolation to be last straw, putting an end to the regime given that similar acts had already occurred nine times previously. The revolution’s success threw the regime into confusion; floundering to emerge from its crisis with minimal losses, the regime was constrained to announce Ben Ali’s escape and name a new president, based on the approved constitution. Admitting the mistake of being content with half-solutions, Marzouki comments that they should not have given a chance to the old regime. Obsessive fear over a collapse of the state came to dominate the political class’ collective consciousness. That hypothesis proved to be erroneous; as if the old regime has been given time enough to conspire against the revolution and hide information that could document pending cases of corruption.

Marzouki tells of his meetings with Rashid Ghannouchi in Paris and London. Some saw the Congrès pour la République (CPR - Congress for the Republic) as simply a political grouping of a few persons with no public weight. However, the results of the National Constituent Assembly elections as announced in October 2011 were that Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic Party took the second place, after Ennahda. He recounts his feelings when he was elected president and tears poured out during the inauguration speech, remembering Mohamed Bouazizi and all the martyrs who made the ultimate sacrifice.

In the fourth chapter Marzouki states: “In the 1970s, we used to consider that political Islam is taking us to backwardness and ignorance. In the mid-1980s, confrontation with Islamists began to surface in newspapers and magazines, and intellectual discussions with and about them dominated the scene. When the book In thePrison of Reason stated that Islamists think in the same way that Marxists do – that they alone possess objective truth, and so share the same mentality – a clash immediately erupted between the two sides.

Marzouki believes that repression only strengthens the Islamists, and that one should not put all Islamists “in one basket,” noting that many leftists do not distinguish between democratic Islamic currents and the anti-democratic currents such as Salafi jihadism. Moreover, many leftists stood against pluralist democracy as “formalistic and bourgeois” but he was once close to Marxist and even Maoist thought, and only later espoused democracy and human rights. However, he never believed that the class struggle is the central engine of history, nor that the Jewish working class in Israel and the Arab working class in Palestine have the same interests. Marzouki then adopted democratic ideas, while maintaining some reservations as he argues that democracy, when combined with economic liberalism, can lead to disasters. Marzouki also believes that modernization in the Arab world was not established as a sustained ontological process and was not the outcome of a set of developments, conflicts and events undergone by a specific human group; rather, it was imposed from above, an outcome of elite struggles or interests.

Chapter Five details Marzouki's journey from nationalism and Marxism to “the social left.” He affiliated himself with the Arab left from an early age and absorbed revolutionary ideas inspired by Marxist literature and the Arab unity intellectual and political project. But with life experience and his growing attraction towards the realm of human rights, he became wary of thinking based on imperatives, or “non-scientific thinking,” in his terms. This caution took root and he sought to dispense with the authoritarian legacy dominating the Arab left and self-absorbed nationalists, in favor of establishing an approach based on a non-ideological cultural Arabism combining socio-economic justice with human rights and liberal political democracy, guaranteeing the civil and political rights of citizens.

In his writing, Marzouki criticizes totalitarian regimes that seek to justify their repressive policies by using concepts such as “the public good” or “the supreme interest of the group” (and in the case of Arabs, the “supreme interest of the ummah”). He warns that “an ideological commodity may sell illusions to individuals who might be deceived by charming but nebulous concepts such as “socialism”; “the inevitability of history”; “progress”; “the right of the Arab nation,” and so forth.

Marzouki stands against the personalization of governance and the propagation of confessional-sectarian language; he practices resistance to colonialism and a struggle against tyranny; he calls for the adoption of scientific thinking – thinking based on hypotheses, and not necessities. He rejects Soviet-style communism as well as economic liberalism – that seems to deliberately confuse freedom of initiative with freedom of exploitation.  Regarding the post-2011 failure of many Arab countries undergoing political mobilization to achieve a true democratic transition: Marzouki is adamant in refusing to hold political Islam or Arab culture responsible.

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