An island of stability amid the furies of Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Yemen, Tunisia is an attractive model for Westerners. Mr. Marzouki, the physician and human rights activist who became president of Tunisia after the Arab Spring swept out the country’s longtime dictator, happily supplies explanations on why the outcome is so different in Tunisia.
“People are asking me all the time: Why is the outcome so different in Tunisia than in Syria?” he said this week at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think it is because of structural reasons.”
Tunisia, Mr. Marzouki said, has few of the tribal or religious cleavages of its neighbors. It is a predominantly middle-class Muslim country with a well-educated population and a developed economy. In a testament to the national consensus, he said, the country was able to hammer out a new Constitution without rancor.
When Mr. Marzouki was asked whether Tunisia had a problem with violence toward women, he deftly called on Mabrouka M’Barek, a young female member of the Constituent Assembly, who said there was always room for improvement but noted that the Tunisian Constitution guaranteed women equality and parity.
And yet, for all his pride in the path Tunisia has taken since the Arab Spring, Mr. Marzouki voiced fear, both for the short term and long term. He worries that extremists will try to disrupt the election over the next 60 days, perhaps by assassinating one of the candidates. Two opposition leaders were killed last year by assassins with links to Al Qaeda.
“We do know we are targeted by terrorists because terrorists, they don’t want Tunisia to be a success story,” he said. “They want Tunisia to be part of the Arab chaos.”
Beyond that, Mr. Marzouki frets that Tunisia will not grow fast enough to provide jobs for its young people, fomenting political instability. The Arab Spring, after all, began on the streets of Tunis, when an impoverished fruit seller, enraged after a police officer confiscated his goods, set himself on fire. That single act of protest galvanized Tunisia’s unemployed in a vast uprising that forced the country’s dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee the country.
Tunisia’s economic problems are compounded by the chaos in Libya, its next-door neighbor. Instead of carrying on vibrant trade, Mr. Marzouki said, Libya has saddled Tunisia with refugees. Its slide into lawlessness poses a critical security threat to Tunisia.
While Mr. Marzouki said he understood President Obama’s decision to go after the Islamic State with military force, he said, “Fighting ISIS, without addressing the roots of the problem, seems to me as a physician to take the symptoms but not cure the disease.”
One of the other things that distinguishes Tunisia from Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and now Syria, analysts point out, is that it has no history of American military involvement. Has that spared it from the strife afflicting its neighbors? “Maybe,” Mr. Marzouki answered, but he hastened to add, “Now we are asking for more involvement — of course, not military, but helping and supporting the economy of Tunisia.”