Tunis adapts to state of emergency

The capital's inhabitants are rapidly adapting to life in a state of emergency.

    The transformation of Tunis has been swift and dramatic. The constant buzz of military helicopters, soldiers on the streets where police once were and the awareness that you cannot go out on the streets after 6pm, create a tension that feels strangely at odds with the city's former rhythm.

    At Tunis Carthage International Airport this morning, everything seemed calmer and less cluttered than the usual tourist mayhem. Applying for a journalist visa was painless, reflecting a new confusion-induced openness that has descended upon the country like a cloud of fog. The usual taxi drivers were there in force, and the cafeteria was full of locals who seemed surprisingly relaxed.

    On the drive out of the airport, the reason for the apparent sense of security became clear. Soldiers were standing guard at the entrance to the carpark. Around the corner was a tank.

    We stopped the car and watched as a string of people approached one soldier trustfully to ask for directions.

    The driver took me on a detour through the suburb of Cité Olympique, where he lives.

    He showed me the barriers of concrete and rubbish bins that people in the neighbourhood had erected the night before. Ad-hoc neighbourhood patrol groups have been formed, and are monitoring who comes and goes.

    The shelves at the neighbourhood grocery shop were empty - people are hording food - but a group of men were hard at work unloading cartons of rice, water and canned food. They were volunteers, they said, acting out of solidarity with their community.

    A couple of blocks down, we stopped outside a bakery, where dozens of people were queuing for bread. When I took their photos, some of the men became upset.

    “I’m a journalist, Al Jazeera,” I said, using one of the few Arabic phrases I know.

    “Show us your press card, or we’re confiscating your camera!” one of the men said in French, as a crowd formed.

    They escorted me to the car. When I opened the door, the driver pointed to the Al Jazeera logo on the bag, and they were satisfied.

    “It’s okay, you can use them. We just needed to check,” the group's leader said, giving me a pat on the back.

    Nearby, a statue of former president Habib Bourguiba had been torn down, its base defaced with graffiti.

    Another sign that things have changed, probably for good.


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