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Marzouki: Tunisia’s opposition stalwart turned president

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Tunisia’s veteran opposition figure Moncef Marzouki, who was sworn in as the nation’s president on Tuesday, is hailed as an orator and a dogged defender of human rights but derided by critics for pandering to Islamists for political gains.

The north African country’s new president opposed long-serving strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali throughout his political career and was forced to live in exile in France for a decade.

The 66-year-old only returned home after Ben Ali was toppled in January by an unprecedented popular uprising.

Fighting back tears, he took the oath of office on Tuesday less than a year after mass protests toppled Ben Ali, sparking popular revolts across the Arab world.

His curt demeanor, hard-hitting speech, craggy face and oversize glasses have made him a cartoonists’ delight.

While admirers say Marzouki’s character is beyond reproach, critics accuse the French-trained doctor of being a pawn of the Islamist Ennahda, which has 89 deputies in the new parliament, where Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic (CPR) party is in distant second place with 29 seats.

The party symbol ─ a pair of red glasses ─ is inspired by Marzouki’s giant spectacles.

Born on July 7, 1945, in Grombalia, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Tunis, Marzouki studied medicine, neurology and public health at the University of Strasbourg.

But early on, Marzouki displayed a passion for human rights. An admirer of India’s independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, he travelled to that country as well as South Africa after its transition from apartheid to democracy.

After graduating from Strasbourg in 1973, Marzouki returned home to teach medicine at the University of Sousse from 1981 until 2000.

In 1980, he joined the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LTDH) and was unanimously elected its head nine years later.

However, he was ousted when Ben Ali’s supporters wrested control of the organization in 1994.

The same year he applied to contest presidential elections ─ a largely symbolic gesture ─ and was jailed and stripped of his passport.

After setting up the CPR, he was forced into exile in France from where he carried on his fight against Ben Ali.

But in his long and often lonely journey as a government foe, Marzouki lost many friends and allies on the way, especially over a 2003 declaration signed with Ennahda which made no mention of secularism as a doctrine.

Although unflinchingly left-leaning, he has warmed to Islamists in recent years, especially over the Arab-Muslim identity ─ a key theme in his electoral campaign.

A few months before the election he slammed the “old left, secular and Francophone, and totally disconnected from the real problems of Tunisian society,” in an interview with AFP.

He also stridently defended his pact with Ennahda, a day after the election, saying: “No, no, no, Ennahda is not the devil. We should not take them for the Taliban of Tunisia. It is however a moderate faction of Islamism.”

Marzouki, a father of three, is divorced from his French wife. A prolific writer, he has penned several books in French and Arabic including one titled “Dictators on Watch: A Democratic Path for the Arab World.”