Ex-president's new party seeks to avert Tunisia 'catastrophe'

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  • Moncef Marzouki
    Moncef Marzouki
    Tunisian politician
  • Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
    Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
    Tunisian politician (1936-2019)

Sousse (Tunisia) (AFP) - Former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki has warned of a "catastrophic" situation in his country, plagued by poverty and jihadists, as he launches a new party a year after his election defeat.

The 70-year-old neurologist applied to form the new grouping on Thursday, the fifth anniversary of the revolution that led to the ouster of longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Marzouki, founder of the Congress for the Republic party during Ben Ali's long dictatorship, was head of state from 2011 until last year.

He was installed as president by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party which came to power after the revolution.

"We are indeed going to launch a party that I will head for a year or two before letting younger people take over as soon as possible," Marzouki told AFP in an interview at his home in Sousse.

The aim of the new grouping, whose name he will announce on Sunday, is "to continue the Tunisian dream," he said.

"This dream is that we become a nation of citizens with social, economic, political and cultural rights -- and enjoy them, which is not yet the case," he said.

"I'm going to work a lot on culture, because this is my true vocation," he said.

Marzouki oversaw Tunisia's sometimes troubled transition to democracy before anti-Islamist President Beji Caid Essebsi, 89, was sworn in on December 31.

He denies revenge plays any part in his move but was scathing about those now in power, denouncing what he called "a totally helpless government" that is "without vision".

"I wouldn't say Tunisia today is badly governed. I would say that it is not governed at all," he said.

After his election defeat, the former human rights activist announced the formation of the "Harak" citizens' movement, saying it was not a political party.

But he believes the situation in the North African country now is "catastrophic".

"I have seen this catastrophe unfold before my eyes, the collapse of foreign policy and of the economy," he said.

- 'Volatile' situation -

Among Marzouki's main grievances with the new government is its fight against "terrorism" in a year that saw Tunisia experience three major attacks claimed by the Islamic State group.

Two targeted foreign tourists -- in March at the capital's National Bardo Museum and in June on a hotel near the Mediterranean resort of Sousse where he lives.

A total of 60 people, all but one foreign tourists, were killed.

The spread of the jihadist threat dates back to 2011 and dozens of people, mostly members of the security forces in addition to the foreign tourists, have been killed since.

Marzouki and his Ennahda allies were accused of not doing enough to combat the threat during their tenure, but he dismisses such criticism.

If there are 6,000 jihadists in Tunisia, they are "the children of the dictatorship", Marzouki said.

"All these young people were born under Ben Ali and went to Ben Ali schools. It wasn't us who produced them," he said.

On his own counter-extremism strategy, he said he had wanted to take "into account economic, political, religious and security considerations".

In this way he also justified dialogue with "non-violent" extremist Sunni Muslims.

He charged that the current government's approach is "the opposite strategy".

"Arresting people in their thousands, reverting to torture... that just feeds terrorism," he said of the crackdown on extremism.

"Most of the people in government are from the old regime" and have its "mentality", he claimed.

"The problem in Tunisia today is the resurgence of the old regime."

Marzouki also lashed out against corruption but admitted he "should have done much more" to combat graft.

In this context, he said Tunisia's transition was incomplete.

"The situation is still volatile, fragile, and it worries me," he said at a time when Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes is embroiled in an internal power struggle.

Despite being the country's largest political force, Marzouki said Nidaa Tounes "has no future".

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