The President and the Islamist: Two Politicos Spar Over Tunisia’s Future

After both returned from exile when Tunisia's dictatorship fell, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki and Rached Ghannouchi, head of the dominant Islamists, are locked in battle over the fate of the Arab Spring

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Gabous Yahya / Demotix / Corbis; Christian Liewig / Agence / CORBIS

Rached Ghannouchi of the Ennahda party, left, and Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki

There are few better ways to gauge the Arab Spring’s bitter ideological divisions than to visit this country’s two most powerful men. On the one end of Tunis, the secular, liberal President Moncef Marzouki sits in the sumptuous seaside palace once occupied by Tunisia’s former dictator, amid mosaics, crystal chandeliers, and a heart-stopping view of the Mediterranean. On the other end, there’s Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the ruling moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, holed up in his office atop a dilapidated downtown building.

But the gap goes beyond creature comforts. There is also an intense political conflict: Over which direction this new democracy should take—a conservative Islamic state, or one with Western-style freedoms. In back-to-back interviews with TIME, what seems clear is that whichever vision wins out will have a marked impact on Tunisia, and perhaps across the region, whose revolutionary wave was first inspired by the stunning revolt here in January 2011. “Tunisia is the laboratory. We were the first,” Marzouki says in his sun-filled office. “This revolution must succeed, it must be a stable democracy.” In his mind, that outcome is not certain, particularly after the violent anti-American protests on Sept. 14 over the anti-Islamic video, in which devout Muslims stormed the U.S. Embassy and torched the city’s American school. Says Marzouki, “Chaos is what the Salafists want, and it will be a catastrophe for all the Arab world.”

(MORE: Tunisia’s Salafists plot a more radical revolution.)

On Wednesday, Marzouki will have a chance to voice those concerns with Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, when the two meet in New York, and on Thursday, he’ll push his message to his biggest audience yet, when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly—the first democratic Tunisian leader ever to do so.

Marzouki, at 67, is in no mood to temper his words—even when he recognizes he does not have mass support back home. The president—who returned from exile in Paris after the revolution drove out dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali—was installed in a power-sharing agreement after last October’s democratic elections, which the party of Ghannouchi, himself back from exile in London, won. And although the U.S. has trumpeted the Tunisian election as an Arab Spring success, up close, the two men have struggled to find common ground. At times sidelined and isolated for his secular, Westernized views, Marzouki in June even penned a resignation letter, and then opted to withdraw it at the last minute, because, he explains, “My friends said, ‘if you leave, it will lead to more and more difficulties.’”

The difficulties Tunisia’s new democracy faces exploded into international view on September 14, when hundreds of protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy and scaled its walls, then hoisted an al-Qaeda flag on the flagpole—all under the noses of the government security forces. The riot, three days after the U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi in next-door Libya, brought bitter recriminations and finger-pointing between Marzouki and Ghannouchi’s government, and came despite a high-level meeting that morning on how to avoid violence. At 4 p.m., after an anxious call from Clinton, Marzouki finally deployed his presidential guards to help rescue the Americans and drive out the rioters.

(MORE: Politics and street fights surround Tunis’s U.S. embassy attack.)

Marzouki says he had pleaded with Ghannouchi to crack down on the rising Salafist movement, after months of attacks by ultra-religious Muslims, including on women students who were not veiled, and on an art exhibition deemed offensive to Islam. Instead, he says, Ghannouchi and the government his party dominates soft-pedalled the issue. “The government wants to be on good terms with the Salafists,” he says. “They think that this is a crucial year, that we have to keep our problems under the carpet until we have elections [sometime next year] and then we can solve the problems,” he says. “I say, ‘no we cannot wait anymore.’”

In response, Ghannouchi, 71, says he faces no easy choices in cracking down on Salafists. (For one thing, many of them voted for his Ennahda party last October, and might do so again next year.) Under decades of dictatorship, he says, Ben Ali jailed Salafists and outlawed Islamist parties, including his own. Tunisia’s first Salafist party, the Reform Front, was given official permission to operate last May, and is calling for the country to be run according to Sharia law. With the Arab Spring, Islamic fervor has flourished—and Ghannouchi argues that it can hardly be snuffed out without the government appearing to be a new form of despotic rule. “What do people want us to do?” he says, speaking in Arabic in a soft, gravely voice. “Do they want us to open the prisons and arrest people according to their ideologies? We have moved into a new era in the country. We have freedom of faith, so we don’t judge people based on what ideology they follow, but on their actions.”

While the investigations about the riots grind on—so far, no heads have rolled for the debacle—the longer-term battle between the two men is being fought on another stage: the drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution. Under an agreement last year, the elected Assembly has until Oct. 23—just four weeks from now—to present a post-dictatorship constitution, the first of the Arab Spring governments. Ghannouchi says the politicians are scrambling to finish their work, and that the version next month will be “the first draft. Then the discussion will follow.”

(PHOTOS: Sidi Bouzid, the Tunisian Town Where the Arab Spring Began)

The talk is likely to be heated indeed. Intensely contentious issues divide Tunisians—again, pitting those who want strict Islamic codes of conduct, against those who fear that conservative Islam will engulf secular freedoms like an open press and women’s rights and drastically change a country which produces fine wines and tolerates bikinis on their beaches. In Sidi Bouzid, the town west of Tunis where the revolution first sparked in 2010, Salafists have succeeded in shutting down most bars which sell alcohol. In a country where women have had voting rights for decades, thousands of women protested last month when the assembly proposed giving women in the constitution “a complementary role inside the family”—though many did not know what the phrase even meant.

In Marzouki’s mind, the new constitution might well go against some of his cherished secular beliefs—ones, he says, are already at odds with Ghannouchi’s views. Their partnership, says the president, has been “difficult.” “We do not belong to the same ideology,” he says. “We do not have the same point of view on women’s rights, human rights, and so forth.”

The “so forth” includes the most divisive issue of all: The freedom to criticize Islam. While this month’s fury has centered on the “Innocence of Muslims” video, in Tunisia, the film touched a raw nerve at home, too. No issue so crystalizes the country’s ideological divide as much as the question of freedom of expression. For Marzouki, that freedom is absolute—and insults like the YouTube video are an unfortunate by-product. Ghannouchi rejects that view. “Freedom of expression stops short of incitement towards hatred, based on color, gender or ethnicity,” he says. Absolute freedom of expression, he says, “realistically does not exist anywhere.”

While the battle between these two men continues, the conflict might ultimately be decided by yet another constitution fight: Over whether Tunisia will choose a presidential system, like the U.S. and France, or a parliamentary one, like Britain and much of Europe. Keen to see strong authority in the palace, Marzouki says the U.S. Embassy riot proved the need for a president with crucial powers, like defense and foreign affairs, “and probably with a hand in internal security,” he says. After the anti-American violence, “it’s clear there must be a president who can intervene.”

To that, Ghannouchi scoffs, saying he has drawn no such conclusion from the anti-American protests. “Dictatorship was ushered into Tunisian politics through the presidential system, and we don’t want to go back to the past,” he says, adding that he favors a “symbolic” president who represents a united country. “We want a complete break, so that we don’t revert, God forbid, to a dictatorship.” Marzouki might yet dust off his resignation letter in the months ahead.

MORE: Tunisia’s Dictator is Out But What’s Left Behind?