In Tunisia, freedom blossoms

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.

For years, Mohammed Nasrallah, who was once jailed for supporting an opposition group, was forced to keep a large photo of Ben Ali in his restaurant near the Avenue Habib Bourghiba, the epicenter of the protests, which winds through downtown Tunis. Removing it would have meant a visit from city inspectors, stiff fines, perhaps even a beating by the secret police.

But after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Nasrallah took the photo from the frame and set it on fire. "It was like I was born again," he said.

A block away, Radhiya Mishirsi said she once worried that the police would insult her when she wore her head scarf. On Friday, she stood near a group of policemen and declared that she would cover her entire face, leaving only her eyes exposed. The policemen nodded and smiled.

Around the capital, once forbidden jokes about Ben Ali are circulating openly. One goes like this: Ben Ali returns to Tunisia and visits a shoe store. The salesman brings him a pair. "How do you know my shoe size?" Ben Ali asks.

"We have been under your shoes for 23 years," the salesman replies. "So of course we know your size."

'First, the people'

On the Avenue Bourghiba, Mohamed Dhakar carried a placard calling for a new national motto: "First, the people. Freedom. Rights. Justice."

"I am not part of any party," Dhakar yelled. "I am for Tunisia."

His presence attracted a large crowd and triggered an impromptu discussion.

"We are against the secret police. We want all of them in uniform," a man yelled.

"If the new government is making a piece of theater, the people will remove them like we did the old government," another man yelled.

Communists, socialists and atheists were all staging demonstrations downtown on this day. Opposition groups were once banned or harassed by the old government. On Friday, more than 1,000 Islamists marched along the avenue, calling for a parliamentary form of government. A group from a rural area in Tunisia's impoverished south distributed pamphlets demanding more jobs and development in their region.

Some hurled insults at the once-feared police.

"There is a God," a man shouted at some policemen. "There is a God to protect the truth. How can you have killed your own people?"

Sueda Guesmi was also asking that question. She said her son was accused of selling alcohol illegally and imprisoned without a trial. A few weeks later, she was told he had died in his cell.

"I want to know why my son was killed," Guesmi said. "I want justice for him."

Writing without fear

At the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the 300 or so employees demanded that the minister, an ally of Ben Ali, depart along with his staff. He complied. As his chief of staff left the building, the employees exploded in thunderous applause.

"Long live the revolution! Long live Tunisia!" they chanted.

"We are rejecting this new government," said Rauda Assel, an employee standing outside the ministry building. "This is not the moment for taking your ministry car and your responsibilities, but to be with the people for the right cause."

The employees appointed a three-member committee from their own ranks to run the ministry until, they said, a government is formed that satisfies them.

At La Presse newspaper, the editor in chief, who was appointed by the former government, also stepped down. A committee of editors took over. Ten days ago, they were publishing official propaganda delivered by the state news agency. On the front pages, they always published a picture of Ben Ali. They wrote fawning articles about Besma - The Smile - a charity run by his wife, Leila Trabesi.

"It was a smoke screen to hide the corruption of the first family," said Hmida Ben Romdhane, an editor on the committee now running the newspaper. "Before the revolution, we were not publishing information. We published disinformation. The regime forbade any attempt to write the truth."

Now, for the first time in their lives, La Presse's 50 journalists are writing without fear.

Ben Ali's photo is no longer published on the front page - unless it accompanies a scathing article about the regime's excesses. Last week, La Presse published a story about Switzerland freezing Ben Ali's assets.

Soon, Ben Romdhane said, his reporters are planning to investigate the corruption and repression of the former regime. "We have to learn how to be free and work in this new atmosphere of freedom," he said.

His voice filled with emotion as he spoke about the profound change in the newsroom and his life.

"I am 59, and I have seen only two presidents. I have experienced two dictatorships," he said. "The freedom we have gained is a freedom imposed by the people on the political system. This freedom, I think, will last.

"It's a new era."

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