Tunisia's Leader: Activist, Exile And Now President Tunisia's president is a former doctor and human-rights activist who was jailed under the previous regime. In an interview with NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, he says expectations are high and jobs are scarce following last year's Arab Spring revolution.

Tunisia's Leader: Activist, Exile And Now President

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Our travels through Tunisia took us to a building that for decades was the center of power: the Carthage Palace, former home of the ousted ruler Ben Ali. The ceremonial courtyard and entrance made us think of some European monarch from some other age. But when we arrived inside, a new president had a seat in Ben Ali's exceedingly overstuffed chair. President Moncef Marzouki is a soft-spoken human rights activist. He's in office during what he calls a dangerous year, and unlike his predecessor, he has no guarantee of getting the final word. The president must work with an assembly and a prime minister, and that government is jostling with him over the limits of his authority.

PRESIDENT MONCEF MARZOUKI: When you have been under dictatorship for more than five decades, your main problem is to prevent a new dictatorship. So now we are discussing about how to share powers between prime minister and the president that no one can become a dictator, but also it must work, so...

INSKEEP: Checks and balances.


INSKEEP: That's what you want in the end to happen?

MARZOUKI: Yes. Yeah.

INSKEEP: When you talk about sharing power, Mr. President, I'm reminded of a recent news event involving the former prime minister of Libya...


INSKEEP: ...who as that government fell fled to Tunisia, is under arrest here. The question is, when and how to return him to Libya for trial. If I'm not mistaken, the justice minister said we'll return him. You said no, we won't. The justice minister said, actually, yes, we will. Am I describing it correctly?

MARZOUKI: Yeah. They came to me and said, Mr. President, it's the national interest of Tunisia to return this man back to Libya. And my response all the time is that Tunisia has interests, but also has honor, you know.


MARZOUKI: Honor, yes.

INSKEEP: You want to make sure that he gets a fair trial when he goes back to Libya...

MARZOUKI: Yes. Yes. And before being president of Tunisia, (unintelligible) at that time a human rights activist, and I will never return a man that I'm quite sure that he could be subjected to torture, or the death penalty, and so forth, so I'm not going to return him.

INSKEEP: Is this an early test of the idea of trying to share power?


INSKEEP: Could there ever have been a debate like that that would arise with the man who used to sit in the chair where you're sitting now?

MARZOUKI: Of course not. Of course not. Of course not, and you know it.

INSKEEP: On another issue, Mr. President, I'm thinking about the fact that in the United States the unemployment rate is over eight percent. I read the other day the unemployment rate here remains above 18 percent.

MARZOUKI: It's our main problem. It's a huge challenge. And we do know that if we cannot succeed in tackling this issue - giving jobs to people - then we can have a revolution within the revolution. This is why we're working hard, you know, to attract investment. Because it's really a matter of death or life for democracy - for the democracy in Tunisia.

INSKEEP: A matter of life or death.


INSKEEP: In other words, the democratic experiment depends on improving the economy.

MARZOUKI: Yes. Yes. This is why we need - we badly need the help of our friends in Europe, in the United States, because, you know, Tunisia is now a kind of lab - the whole Arab world is watching. This year, which is the most dangerous year because it's the year after the revolution, and the level of expectation is very, very high. And people are waiting for everything - for a miracle.

INSKEEP: This is the most dangerous year, you think.

MARZOUKI: Yes. People are really expecting a rapid and massive solution to the problems. But what we are trying to do to tell them that now for the first time they are free. For the first time they have no corrupted government. For the first time they have men and women working hard to resolve their problem and they don't have any other solution, other choice, than to wait for the result of this policy.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, thank you very much.

MARZOUKI: It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: Moncef Marzouki is the new president of Tunisia. In the coming days, MORNING EDITION's trip on the Revolutionary Road takes us across the border to Libya.


And if you go to NPR.org, we have three books to take you on a literary journey through the Arab Spring.

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