REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Promising an end to decades of autocracy, a veteran human rights activist on Tuesday was sworn in as president of Tunisia, the country that inspired the "Arab Spring" uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.
Moncef Marzouki, who was imprisoned and exiled for years for opposing former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, said during a ceremony in Tunis, the capital, he would be a leader “for all Tunisians.”
“Other nations are watching us as a laboratory of democracy,” he said.
Marzouki, 66, who heads the secular center-left Congress for the Republic party, was elected Monday by a ruling coalition dominated by the moderate Islamist Nahda party, which won the largest share of seats in an assembly charged with appointing a transitional government and drafting a new constitution.
More than 40 opposition members cast blank ballots to protest a vote they described as democratic window-dressing, saying real authority in the new government will be wielded by Islamists.
Most power will be in the hands of the prime minister, and Marzouki is expected to name Nahda’s Hamadi Jebali to the post. Jebali will then have 21 days to form a government, which will be submitted to parliament for approval.
Some secularists and liberals fear that Nahda will undermine civil liberties and edge the country toward Islamic law, accusations denied by the party.
Marzouki on Tuesday challenged the opposition to “participate in the political life of the country and not content itself with the role of observer.”
He teared up when he spoke of the many people who died during weeks of street protests.
Tunisia's revolt was ignited last December when a young fruit seller, frustrated over lack of opportunity, set himself on fire, killing himself. Ben Ali was overthrown in January, inspiring uprisings across the Arab world, including in Egypt and Libya, where longtime leaders were also toppled.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Tunisia President Moncef Marzouki gestures after his swearing-in ceremony in Tunis, the capital, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency