As the spirit of 2011 has faded this year amid religious violence in Egypt and Libya and the bloody sectarian civil war in Syria, Tunisia remains the Arab Spring's most promising success story, with a contentious but robust political system and an economy that is growing again.
Much of the credit goes to President Moncef Marzouki, who has provided vision and wisdom since taking office in December 2011. At the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September, the doctor-turned-democracy-activist called on the United Nations to declare dictatorship a "disease" and launch an official campaign against autocratic rulers, including the establishment of an international court to arbitrate elections and government legitimacy so as to prevent dictators from taking power in the first place. "It behooves us to implement an ambitious, bold program to eliminate dictatorship in the same way in which we got rid of polio and smallpox," Marzouki said.
But Marzouki, a former professor of public health, is no starry-eyed idealist. An admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, he devoted himself to human rights early in his career, traveling to India in his youth and South Africa soon after the end of apartheid. As head of Tunisia's leading human rights organization, he was arrested several times by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime and was eventually forced into exile in France, where he remained a prominent figure in Tunisia's liberal opposition but angered many of his cohorts by working with the Islamist Ennahda movement. Marzouki returned home after Ben Ali's ouster and was elected president by the country's Constituent Assembly.
A committed secularist, Marzouki, who is overseeing the writing of a new constitution, insists that Islamist parties must play a role in Tunisia's governance, though he has also been willing to stand up to them when they overreach. He describes the country's ultra-conservative Salafi groups as "extremely dangerous" but outside the mainstream. If anyone can guide Tunisia through its transition to democracy -- and hopefully create a model for a troubled region -- it's Marzouki, who just might have the right combination of tenacity and levelheadedness to see the country through.
Reading list: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond; Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future, by Peter D. Ward; anthology of haikus. Best idea heard in 2012: Tax financial transactions. Worst idea: The support of China, Russia, and Iran to the Syrian regime. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not to tweet.