In Tunisia, freedom blossoms
Monday, January 24, 2011; 12:36 AM
TUNIS - Workers stormed out of the state-run shipping company the other day. For decades, they had lived quietly in relative poverty as their bosses, all members of the former ruling party, drove luxury cars and owned mansions.
Only 10 days ago, the police would have suppressed this mini-uprising and arrested them. Now, it was a new order. Pumping their fists, the workers accused the company's chairman of embezzlement and demanded his resignation.
Across this nation, Tunisians are experiencing a blossoming of freedoms after a popular uprising ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power on Jan. 14, ending his autocratic rule. Many are voicing their thoughts and ideas after living for nearly a quarter of a century in fear. Others, for the first time in their lives, are demanding justice for relatives killed by his regime.
The happiness is tempered by unease, for their future is still uncertain. Protests are unfolding daily in the capital to demand that the interim government purge all members of Ben Ali's party. The opposition is weak and divided; some fear militias that supported the president might create problems.
In a crackdown on key allies of Ben Ali, police on Sunday placed two high-ranking officials under house arrest and detained the head of a well-known private TV station for allegedly trying to slow the country's steps toward democracy.
But for now, at least, many here are embracing freedoms they thought they would never have.
"They stole the nation's money. They were a mafia. Our company is like a little example of what was wrong with Tunisia," said Sofiyan Abu Sami, one of the workers who walked off the job the other day. Some carried placards that read "No to corruption."
"Now, we can finally speak our minds," he said.
Under Ben Ali, Tunisia was perceived by the West as a model nation in the Arab world - moderate, relatively prosperous and secular. The autocratic leader, who seized power in 1987, stamped down on Islamic radicalism; he was a U.S. ally in the war against terrorism in a region where al-Qaeda was making inroads.
Ben Ali also lorded over a landscape of repression and corruption. Journalists were censored, harassed and monitored by his intelligence service. Critical voices were silenced.
His family owned more than half the companies in Tunisia, including banks, hotels and real estate development firms. Bribes and good ties with the government were the route to jobs and promotions.
In the streets, shops and offices, Ben Ali's photos were everywhere, as were the secret police.