Tunisia vibrated with palpable euphoria in the days after mass protests forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to decamp to Saudia Arabia.
A few short weeks on, utopic expectations of a sweeping break with the old regime are colliding with concerns that the country is edging towards political and economic crisis.
"There's a big discussion underway between those that are concerned that genuine revolution be realised, and those that are really concerned that the power vacuum will lead to chaos," says Michael Willis, a lecturer at Oxford University's School of Oriental Studies.
Tunisians are split into two general camps: what might be called the 'idealists,' who refuse to rest until every last relic of the old regime has been stripped away, and the 'realists'' who fear that, however imperfect and in need of reform the existing institutions may be, instability and lack of governance could open the way for either the military or the barely-ousted regime to take power.
The idealist group includes a tactical alliance of Islamists, trade unionist and far-left groups, while the reformers include centre-left opposition parties, conservatives, former allies of Ben Ali and independents who have stepped into the political sphere for the first time.
Until the deadlock between the two sides is bridged, the country is floating in a state of limbo.
Lurking in the shadows, both groups are quick to say, are Ben Ali loyalists poised to profit from any ambiguity to re-establish their political might. Each side accuses the other of being infiltrated by former members of the recently disbanded RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally) party.
While there are clearly manipulations going on, Willis says, both sides have legitimate concerns.
"Every time any structure is put in place, there are calls for it to be removed and overthrown. Yet there are concerns that rolling chaos and rolling demands will just gut the system," he says.
Mohamed Ghannouchi stood down from his role as interim prime minister last Sunday, after protests in the capital calling for his resignation turned violent and five people were killed. Ghannouchi had been prime minister under Ben Ali since 1999.
Particularly foreboding for the prospects of Tunisia’s democratic transition was the resignation of two leading representatives of Tunisia’s centre-left opposition; Najib Chebbi, the founder of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), and Ahmed Ibrahim, the head of the Ettajdid Movement.
Both politicians had been prominent critics of Ben Ali and were untainted by links to the former regime.
Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of the executive committee of the PDP, tells Al Jazeera that Chebbi had resigned because he was concerned about political uncertainty and the government's ceding of power to a "strange alliance" of union activists, Islamist parties, including Rachid Ghannouchi's pro-democracy al-Nahda movement and the smaller, more conservative Tahir party, and a range of Marxist and Leftist groups.
"Since the government is too weak, they give the opposition, especially the trade union, everything that they demand," Bouazzi says.
He adds that this was especially ironic given that the national union (UGTT) leadership had worked closely with Ben Ali - including Abdessalem Jrad, the UGTT's secretary-general - and only became involved in the protest movement on the eve of his fall from power.
Many things may have changed in the new era, but there are reminders of the past. People who tried to attend a protest calling for Jrad's resignation were intimidated by supporters of the union on Saturday.
"In the post-Ben Ali Tunisia, repression continues," writes Selim Slimi, a journalist who was severely beaten outside the union headquarters by its members as he tried to report on the protest.
The country’s centre-left parties fear that the combination of uncertainty over the upcoming elections and the insecurity caused by the ongoing protests is going to lead to a scenario where the military could take power.
"Since these people are using violence in the street, maybe this will pave the way for the army," Bouazzi says.
Beji Caid Essebsi, who came out of retirement to take the role of interim prime minister after Ghannouchi's resignation, has the advantage of having no direct links to the Ben Ali regime.
While the 87-year-old who served as a minister in President Habib Bourguiba's government may not be fresh blood, Essebsi is viewed as a more palatable figure to oversee the country's democratic transition, and promised to form a new interim government within days. The government was announced on Monday.
A town pillaged
The malaise reaches far beyond the capital, penetrating into the impoverished centre-west of the country where the protest movement began.
|Shops in Kasserine were closed because of the looting last weekend.'I swear by God it's empty,' the owner of this shop has written [Photo courtesy of a man in Kasserine]
In Kasserine, the town that sacrificed the most lives during the uprising, a sudden eruption of violence has dealt a severe blow to expectations that the new political dawn would rapidly bring postive changes to the region.
Hopes that thirst for jobs, decent employment conditions, government investment and freedom would finally be quenched have been overtaken by a state of fear, after the town was engulfed by three days of burning and looting by gangs of youths.
Mohamed-Salah Omri, a lecturer at Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies who is originally from Kasserine, says that no more than a couple of hundred people had participated in the violence over the weekend and that the vast majority of the town strongly opposed it.
The rampage caught the town just when morale had been high, he says. "There was a certain consensus that the town was looking up," he explains. "The security situation was good and people dropped their guard."
The rioters hit the central police station and the national guard first, and moved on to the government finance office, the regional customs office and the council for central and western development. Schools, banks and small businesses were looted.
"They threw stones and used knives to terrorise the people of Kasserine," says Basma Askri, a local lawyer, adding that the recent wave of destruction was far worse than anything that happened during the uprising.
Most of the town's public buildings, many commercial properties and some homes were destroyed, although no lives were lost. More than a week later, many of the shops are still closed.
A 'deliberate strategy'
Sources in the town say the unrest was sparked by false rumours that a project to construct a research hospital in Kasserine was being moved to Gafsa and that the wealthy seaside town of Monastir would be receiving sizable government investments. In a town long starved of government attention this roused resentment.
Several people who attended a sermon in a poor neighbourhood of Ezzouhour, where protesters had been killed by snipers in mid-January, say an imam there had helped spread the rumour. "He said that to make people angry. It's not his role to talk politics; he said some very disturbing things," a local business owner, speaking anonymously for his own protection, says.
"These people [spreading the rumours] want to create regional rivalries. They don't want Tunisia to be free and democratic."
With so much social and political uncertainty, in addition to the endemic unemployment that was one of the issues behind the December uprising, another young man explained that it is easy to incite the town's restless youth.
"A few rumours are enough to start a protest right now," he says, adding that "it was well-organised."
The interior ministry also says that the protest was provoked by deliberate misinformation and urged Tunisians "not to fall for such warped rumours, which aim at destabilising the country and fermenting trouble and disorder," in a statement.
Witnesses from Kasserine say that records in the public buildings were completely destroyed in acts, unlike the wider looting, that seemed planned and calculated.
"These people went straight to the public buildings, where there were very important papers which could have been used as proof against them," the business owner says.
Anger at the army
One indication of how much the people of Kasserine have been shaken by the latest unrest is the effect it has had on their relationship with the army. Hugely popular since its commander-in-chief, Rachid Ammar, reportedly refused Ben Ali's demand to fire on protesters during the unrest, the army had won the respect of the town where the worst massacres occured.
But several people in Kasserine say the events of last week happened under the watch of the military and that soldiers stood passively as buildings were burned and robbed.
"The crowd headed straight for the police station and the army didn’t stop them," one man says. "There are still limits on their intervention."
Because of their perceived failure to protect the town, angry locals asked the military to leave for the first time last Saturday, sources say.
People of Kasserine express their anger at the army's failure to prevent the violence
A video sent to Al Jazeera shows locals confronting soldiers:
"Yesterday they burgled the bank and where were you?
"When they stole the weapons [from the police station], where were you?
"Coward, collaborator, Trabelsi [reference to Leila Ben Ali's family]."
Neither has the incident improved the locals' low opinion of the police.
Neji Zairi, a spokesperson for the interior ministry, says that the police had done their best in difficult circumstances and had little choice but to flee as the protesters approached. "What can they do? There were thousands of people who were trying to invade the police building. You can't always resort immediately to bullets and risk killing people," he says.
Omri says that while the people of Kasserine do not generally suspect the army of being complicit in the unrest, the problem lies in the lack of clarification over the army's role in domestic affairs. Police have lost some of their authority to the army, he notes, and may have expected the soldiers to take over in dealing with the youths. "I don't think people know what the army's rules of engagement are," he says.
The spokesperson for the defence ministry was unavailable to discuss the matter when contacted by Al Jazeera. But the ministry did issue a statement on Tuesday which, though it did not refer directly to Kasserine, appeared to be a response to criticisms, denouncing what it termed a campaign to discredit the army, "which has valiantly resisted to protect the revolution since its beginning, to defend the state institutions, protect individuals, preserve public and private property against acts of vandalism and looting and to safeguard the republican regime".
The army quickly sent heavy reinforcements to the town, and worked with police to arrest people suspected to have instigated or carried out the rioting. Helicpoters surveyed the streets from above, while patrols of soldiers and tanks monitored things on the ground, with the assistance of a small number of police.
"There's been a complete turnaround in the attitude of the soldiers," one man says.
The interior ministry confirm several local businessmen, a lawyer, a school principal and former members of the local government were sent to Tunis for questioning. The imam is at large but is wanted for questioning.
Soldiers arrest man in cash-filled Mercedes in Kasserine on Saturday
"These are important people, all have links to the RCD," Omri says.
A car filled with thousands of dinar in cash fuelled suspicions that youths were to be paid for having participated in the looting.
"Police agents have arrested the people who were paying the individuals who committed the violence and criminal acts," Neji Zairi says.
In an attempt to rebuild the trust that had been lost during the rampage, a military commander held an exceptional meeting with locals on Monday to better explain the army's mandate, Al Jazeera learned.
The commander called on Kasserine's civil society to help calm the tensions, and said the military had prevented a group from breaking into the local prison on Sunday, as well as the attempted sabotage of a nearby factory.
The campaign of destruction in Kasserine is one of many suspicious cases that are contributing to wider fears that former regime heavyweights still have the capacity to wreak havoc, especially since local and national authorities are weakened by the battle for legitimacy.
The month of February was marked by a series of strange incidents that served to remind Tunisians that that the fruits of their uprising are far from ripe. The interior ministry is investigating alleged cases of instigating violence in the capital, Sidi Bouzid and El Kef, as well as last week's incident in Kasserine.
In his resignation speech, Ghannouchi warned Tunisia's "silent majority" that they must remain vigilant against the attempts to undermine their “revolution”.
"A plot is being instigated against the Tunisian peoples' revolution," Ghannouchi cautioned, on his final night as prime minister. "There is a minority who want to make the revolution fail and a majority who are apathetic."
For Omri, what happened in Kasserine was part of a pattern that has emerged in post-uprising Tunisia of mob psychology being manipulated to achieve political ends. He says the trend is unlikely to be the work of a single group, but rather individuals operating at the local level.
"For some it's just an opportunity to loot and break, for others it's a cover for something else. And that's been happening across Tunisia," he says.