A speaker’s freedom

Moncef Marzouki was scheduled to give a lecture at the Orient Institut in Beirut on March 17 titled “The Future of the Concept of Democracy in the Arab World” as a part of the German research center’s Key Works, Key Words lecture series featuring Arab and foreign thinkers.

“He was excited.  We were also excited, because one of the ideas [of the lecture series] was to hear from North Africa,” said Suzanne Kassab, a research fellow at the institute. “Part of excitement was to precisely get in touch with writers and thinkers from Africa and share experiences.”

Marzouki seemed the right man for the job. A Tunisian doctor, political thinker, writer, human rights activist and the self-described “public enemy number one” of the Tunisian government, Marzouki points to the latter as the main reason his lecture will not be held as planned. 

For on March 4, the Orient Institut, which had been handling Marzouki’s travel papers, received word that his visa had been declined by the Lebanese General Security, according to Kassab.

This is a rare case, said Amr Saeddine, a research coordinator for SKeyes, a Lebanese foundation for the defence of cultural and media freedom. It is usually books, not people, that are banned from entering the country, he said.

Kassab says the Lebanese government gave no explanation as to why Marzouki’s visa was declined. Marzouki, however, believes the answer is fairly obvious: pressure from the Tunisian government.

“I think the Tunisian government is extremely upset about people like me. All the time they are behind us,” Marzouki told NOW Lebanon over the phone from France, where he lives in political exile. “I am extremely surprised. I thought I would have problems in Egypt and Algeria, because they are strongly linked to the Tunisian government, but I didn’t expect it to be an influence in Lebanon.”

Marzouki, formerly a professor of Neurology and Preventative Medicine, moved away from his profession and began a campaign of vocal opposition to the Tunisian government in the 1980s. He served as the vice president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) in 1987 and was its president from 1989 until 1994. Marzouki also helped launch the National Committee for the Defense of Prisoners of Conscience in 1993, for which he was also arrested.

The same year his presidency of the LTDH ended, he ran for president of a slightly larger entity: the Tunisian state. Maintaining that human rights cannot be separated from politics, his platform centered on the need for reform, and he was subsequently arrested for “the propagation of false news” and detained for four months, according to Human Rights First.

"For the past 10 years I have led a campaign to assert my right to stand as a presidential candidate. Why can't I aspire to be a presidential hopeful? I have a more legitimate claim to stand than the Tunisian president. He is standing for office for the fourth time. He should give others the chance to run the country," Marzouki told Ahram Weekly in October of 2005, perhaps illustrating the origins of Tunisian President Zein Al-Abidine Bin Ali’s qualms with him.

Though his presidential dreams have not been realized, Marzouki is currently president of the Congress for the Republic, a Tunisian opposition party, and has lived in Paris since the government brought civil disobedience charges against him in 2006, for which he refused to appear in court. According to a statement released by SKeyes, Marzouki said he would “not appear in front of an employee who is playing a miserable role in a fallen judicial system,” but that he was, however, honored to be charged with civil disobedience. In the statement he called on all Tunisians to use all peaceful means to remove “the dictatorship of Bin Ali.”

Around a decade before his last skirmish with Tunisian authorities, Marzouki penned “The Second Independence”, printed in Lebanon in 1996. In the book, he asserts that the first Arab Independence was gaining freedom from colonialism, and calls for a “second independence” from totalitarian regimes in favor of democratic rule.

According to SKeyes, the book was banned in Lebanon in 1996, although the Ministry of Culture could not be reached for comment. SKeyes also believes that the book’s publishing house, Dar Al-Kanuz Al-Adabiya, was harassed by government agents at around the same time. Some of Marzouki’s ideas on a “second independence” were to be the subject of his now-cancelled lecture at the Orient Insitut, possibly another factor in his visa refusal. 

Marzouki says that he did not think his intention to chronicle what he perceives to be a “democratic problem” in Tunisia and the Arab World would raise any eyebrows in Lebanon, which is not ruled by a totalitarian regime. Markouzi points to Lebanon as a good example for the region, as it has historically maintained a troubled yet none-the-less democratic structure of governance.

Although Marzouki believes that pressure for the Tunisian government is the primary reason he was restricted from entering the country, he speculates that some members of the current Lebanese government may also have a problem with his ideas. Saeddine thinks that Marzouki could have been banned from entering Lebanon during the era of Syrian control of the country, and his file could possibly have not been revised since.
Marzouki confessed that he is not popular with the Syrian regime, as another one of his Arabic-language books, “To have our place in the new world”, is banned there. 

Whatever the reasons for his visa denial, Marzouki said he is surprised and disappointed, especially as he “never meant to meddle” on the Lebanese political or social scene.