Tunisia: Then and now

The night after President Ben Ali fled the country, gun battles raged in Tunis, but a fervent optimism prevailed. Today, the optimism is tempered with the worry of many unanswered questions.


    When I arrived in Tunis last Saturday, I remembered how differently I'd felt when I arrived in the country six months ago.

    We landed late on January 15, the night after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled the country.

    Al Jazeera had been banned under his rule so we didn't know whether we would be allowed in. My heart was beating hard as I went through passport control, not knowing if they would still be following the old rules.

    But we made it through, where we found we had to sleep in the airport as a strict curfew was in place.

    We lay on the marble floor, with hundreds of other passengers, stuck like us.

    The next day, we found gun battles still raged as troops loyal to Ben Ali fought the rest of the army which had sided with the people.

    That evening just before curfew, tanks barred our car's way to the hotel and we had to walk several blocks with the noise of shooting all around us.

    As we hurried along , sticking close to the buildings, gangs of men - who were probably as frightened as us - demanded to know who we were and to search our bags.

    At our hotel, we found padlocked doors, and the staff who'd remained very surprised to see us.

    Despite the ongoing violence, there was an almost fervent optimism.

    People had just seen the power of their voice and their presence on the streets send their leader packing.

    Our local producer barely slept that week - partly through work demands, but also from pure excitement, he told us.

    Tempered optimism

    This time, I found optimism, but tempered with the worry about so many unanswered questions.

    Questions about the economy - prices have certainly risen and the unemployment which drove so many onto the street in January has not gone down.

    And questions about the nascent democracy: how are eight million people going to register to vote in time for the country’s historic October elections? And how will things work, with 90 parties taking part in the vote?

    There are also questions about justice.

    One day we went to cover the third trial of Ben Ali.

    Many think these trials are a joke and a waste of time when no action has been taken to identify those responsible for killing citizens during the revolution.

    Every day ordinary Tunisians come to the same court building where the trials take place seeking justice for relatives killed during the uprising, for people detained during recent protests, or for more mundane matters, but all of them falling on deaf ears.

    One young man saw us filming outside the court and told me "this trial is just happening to make an international movie about how great Tunisia is, and how nice the judges are. But it's not true!"

    He then hurried into the building, no doubt trying doggedly but in vain to resolve some personal crisis with the courts.

    Much has been made in the international press of the recent protests.

    But these were tiny - only a few hundred - compared to when thousands took to the streets in the wake of Ben Ali's departure to demand a government free of members of the old regime.

    Loud discussion

    It's true that the police used tear gas to disperse protesters outside a mosque - some say police entered the mosque - on July 15.

    When we went to the same mosque a week later, we found young men after prayers arguing with a senior police officer outside on the street about the protests a week before.

    The police officer admitted perhaps they had used too much force, but that his officers had also been injured.

    It was a loud but good-natured discussion and one which would have been unheard of under Ben Ali.

    Most people told us that, while there might be problems between different parties, or difficulties in this transition period, at least now they have freedom: freedom to debate these issues in a free press, freedom to join whichever party or association they want, and, above all, the freedom to vote.

    Everyone we spoke to, from activists to party leaders, said there was much to be done.

    But the overall impression is that Tunisians would roll up their sleeves and relish, rather than resent, this work in the new, free, Tunisia.



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