Tunisian assembly elect Moncef Marzouki as interim president
TUNIS // Tunisia's new assembly has chosen a veteran rights activist as the country's first democratically elected president.
Moncef Marzouki of the Congress for the Republic Party became interim president with 153 out of 217 votes in the assembly.
He ran unopposed after the opposition declined to put forward a candidate and nine others did not meet the criteria.
Tunisians in October elected an assembly to write the new constitution and form an interim government.
Mr Marzouki is expected to appoint a prime minister from the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which won the most seats in the assembly.
The election follows the weekend approval of temporary bylaws to guide the nation until the assembly finishes a constitution. It also comes six weeks after landmark elections and nearly a year after Tunisians overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - an uprising that sparked similar movements in other Arab states.
The new bylaws give most of the power to the prime minister, as opposed to the president under the old system - a change that worries the opposition. The bylaws also stipulate that the president must be Muslim with Tunisian parents, over 35 and not a dual citizen of another country. Tunisia is 98 per cent Muslim, but has some Jewish and Christian citizens.
The prime minister and the government he forms are in effect temporary until the country holds a round of post-constitutional elections.
"It is the head of the government not the head of the republic that will be the centre of executive power," said Habib Khedr, a member of Ennahda and the head of the commission that drew up the bylaws.
Although the bylaws passed with the coalition's comfortable majority, many were harshly contested by the opposition, which consists mainly of liberal and left-wing parties.
The centring of power in the hands of the prime minister especially created disquiet among the opposition. Nejib Chebbi of the left of centre Progressive Democratic Party warned of "a new dictatorship."
Ennahda has said its goal is to ensure that there can never be another dictatorship in Tunisia. The party also has gone out of its way to reassure secular Tunisians that it has no plans on imposing religious values on one of the more Westernised countries in the Mena region.
In any case, the issue that may be the most important in the minds of most Tunisians is the country's faltering economy.
Last week the central bank warned that urgent measures needed to be taken as it revised down estimates for Tunisia's growth in 2011 from 1.5 per cent to flat or negative.