Tunisians proud at sparking Arab rebellions

Call it Tunisia Power.

Pride is palpable on the streets of the capital six weeks after this tiny, Mediterranean tourist haven toppled its dictator and unleashed a wave of revolt in the Arab world. And there's an atmosphere of cautious optimism about how Tunisia's "people's revolution" is turning out.

Tunisia's caretaker government has largely managed to calm unrest. Foreign diplomats are flying in to pledge support. Tunisians are even offering food and assistance to displaced people pouring across their border from chaotic Libya.

"Like everybody, I'm full of hope for the future, a future that was cloudy until now," said Chawki Hani, a 42-year-old engineer. He's especially proud that Tunisians harnessed Facebook and the Internet "to break the wall of silence that has paralyzed Arabs."

But the fragility of the situation was clear Friday as police fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse a protest of thousands in front of the Interior Ministry calling for the fall of Tunisia's interim government, which is led by a longtime ally of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

As elsewhere in the Middle East, dissent in Tunisia had long been squelched, opponents were jailed or fled into exile, and people were afraid to talk politics with neighbors. The sudden, unexpected rebellion forced former Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, ending 23 years of rule.

Many uncertainties about the future remain. No date has yet been set for a presidential election, which would be the first free ballot in the history of Tunisia, a French colony until 1956. And no clear leader has emerged among many potential candidates.

Fearing the unknown, nearly 6,000 Tunisians have fled on rickety boats to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Others say change isn't coming fast enough. Protesters have waged sit-ins in the capital, saying the old guard still holds too much power. Though the government has carried out successive purges of politicians with roots in the longtime ruling party, the provisional government is still headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was part of Ben Ali's inner circle.

Rumors have swirled about Ben Ali's health, amid reports he had a stroke and is in a coma in Saudi Arabia. The new government doesn't seem to know what happened: it says it has asked Saudi Arabia whether he is dead and demanded his extradition if he is still alive.

One of Ben Ali's nephews, now living in Paris, said he has had no contact with the ousted president or his wife since they fled. Mohamed Ben Moncef Trabelsi told Le Parisien newspaper that most of his relatives were behind bars now.

Trabelsi also said he found online photos of people looting his house back in Tunisia — even ripping the sinks from bathroom walls — in post-revolt looting that targeted the president's family in the days after his ouster.

"They left us nothing," Trabelsi said.

The violence and looting have largely subsided, though there have been sporadic incidents. A week ago, a Polish priest was found with his throat slit in the parking lot of a religious school outside the capital. It was the first deadly attack on a member of a religious minority since Ben Ali's ouster.

Amid fears that Islamic radicals might try to take advantage of the political vacuum in moderate Tunisia, at least 2,000 people staged a peaceful demonstration in Tunis against extremism last weekend, with one sign reading, "I'm Muslim, I'm secular, I'm Tunisian."

Ben Ali's flight inspired protesters in Egypt, who toppled President Hosni Mubarak. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi has been waging a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

In recent days, thousands of Tunisians fleeing Libya, as well as several hundred Libyans and people of other nationalities, have fled across the border into Tunisia.

"The Tunisian population is really expressing solidarity and being very supportive of the people who are crossing in terms of offering assistance," said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration.

Tunisian doctors went to the border to care for the injured. And ordinary Tunisians have offered to donate blood and showed up with food, ready to help others going through turbulent times.


Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.