When Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali extended his term in 2004 for another five years, making him effectively president-for-life, Mohsen Marzouk realized that for change to occur not only in Tunisia but also in other North African police states, it would be necessary to mesh internal Tunisian networks with ideas and activists from outside the country.
Born in July 1965 and raised in a poor, working-class neighborhood in Sfax, Marzouk has long been politically active. When he was thirteen, he joined a student movement aimed at challenging the rigid control of the governing party. At fourteen, authorities expelled him from his high school for his "political activities."
At his parents' urging, Marzouk ultimately reentered and finished high school in Sfax before entering the University of Tunis. There he became involved in student politics and ultimately became one of the student movement's national leaders. In his final year, 1987, Tunisia's secret police arrested him for political activities. He was held for a number of days somewhere in the Ministry of Interior headquarters complex where he was interrogated and tortured. Authorities later transferred him to a forced labor camp in the southern desert of Tunisia where he spent a year doing "military service."
Even after his release, Marzouk remained active in student politics, working to reconstitute the long-moribund Tunisian Students' Union and eventually being elected to its executive bureau. Tolerated as a nuisance by the government, Marzouk ultimately found some protection by joining the El Taller Foundation, an international nongovernmental organization affiliated with Nelson Mandela, as director of its Arab region program, focusing primarily on human rights and civil society development.
Today, Marzouk believes that the sterile opposition in which he has participated is not the answer. "Opposing the outdated regimes only verbally while the very structures of civil society are vulnerable and ill-formed amounts to nothing," he says. "Tunisian civil society should change its methods and strategies if it is to contribute to starting and sustaining the democratization process."
To advance political reform beyond Tunisia, Marzouk established the Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, an organization to link regional democracy activists with other like-minded people from around the world; its goal is to professionalize the next generation of democracy activists so that when change comes, these individuals are ready for it. "Arab democrats need to learn to read geopolitical maps and need to stop being naïve and non-strategic. What we need is a new breed of activists who are at the same time committed and experts." Marzouk leads that new breed.
Scott Carpenter is the Keston Family Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.