After the Fall: Tunisians Bask in Newfound Freedom

By in Tunis

With the dictatorship gone, Tunisians can finally say what they think. Many are optimistic that, after decades of living under an autocratic kleptocracy, the future is bright. But the new government in Tunis has gotten off to a rocky start.

Photo Gallery: In the Villas of the Cleptocrats Photos
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"All of this is owed to the grace of God," reads the epigram over the front gate of the Villa Adel Trabelsis in Tunis. The gate's doors are gone, having been ripped off by plunderers. Other furnishings -- including beds, curtains, light switches, bathroom tiles and banisters -- are likewise missing. They took it all. What they couldn't carry away was set on fire.

Last week, this was the home of the brother-in-law of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's toppled dictator. The second floor of the house now looks like a soot-covered cave. A wall-mounted cupboard is now nothing more than a pile of embers. One enraged Tunisian used a piece of the charcoal as an impromptu writing instrument, crossing out the word "God" on the portal and replacing it with "the people" in soot lettering: "All of this is owed to the grace of the people."

Driving along the coastal street running through Tunis' upscale al-Masra suburb is a feast for the eyes. White villas are surrounded by lush gardens. Doors and window grills are painted in Mediterranean blue. This week, for a change, al-Masra is not swarming with foreign tourists; they were evacuated because of the revolt launched against Ben Ali's regime in recent weeks. Those who can be seen rummaging around and within the fire-gutted villas are all Tunisians. They have come to see with their own eyes what a kleptocracy looks like.

Until just a few days ago, Tunisians could only speak in whispers about the untold riches acquired by the large extended Trabelsi family of Ben Ali's second wife. Now many want to take a look at the greed that ultimately cost Ben Ali his 23-year rule. Still, they show a preference for wit over hatred when inspecting the ruins. One man, upon seeing a package of Xanax anti-depressants, quips: "The Trabelsis really should have taken these along to Saudi Arabia. They could really use them now."

Brimming with Confidence

Another man, standing in front of a torn-up Monopoly game box, says: "The Trabelsis made all of Tunisia into a game board and stole all the Boardwalks for themselves."

Over the weekend, gunfire between security forces and loyalists to the ex-president could still be heard in Tunis. But now, the situation has quieted. On Monday, lines were still long at gas stations in al-Masra, and even the lines in front of the milkman's delivery truck stretched for 50 meters. Even so, people were confident that the situation would soon improve. "Starting today, the wholesalers can start making deliveries again," says one man, "so the shelves should be full again tomorrow."

Business is brisk at the local café, where men sit around discussing recent events over café au laits and water pipes. At one table, democracy is up for discussion. When asked, Aziz answers in German. He's happy the dictatorship has come to an end, he says, and proud that the Tunisian people showed its courage.

Still, he and his friend -- one of 300 employees at a Gucci shoe factory -- are worried about the economic fallout of the political turnaround. "If Europeans lose their trust in us or if the tourists stay away, it would be terrible," Aziz says. But, he adds, "my greatest joy is just being free to talk with you about politics. A week ago, I wouldn't have spoken with you."

In the blue-collar neighborhood of Buselsla, Median hopes that the so-called Jasmine Revolution will bring him a job. For four years, the 35-year-old locksmith has been unemployed, as are an estimated 20 percent of all Tunisians. Not having a job doesn't just mean having no cash for cigarettes and a cell phone. For four years, his girlfriend has been waiting to finally get married. "But you can only do that with a regular paycheck," Median says. Median hopes that he will soon be making money again sometime soon -- and that the hours of killing time on a park bench will now end. "Starting today," he exclaims, "Tunisia is heaven on earth."

A National Hero

While Median celebrates, a car stops nearby. Two women are eager to put their new-found freedom of speech to use. "Do you want to interview us?" one calls out. "I am an engineer and she is a professor. We'll tell you everything!"

A tank is parked under the palm trees on al-Masra's beach. The army is there to prevent further arson attacks and guarantee the peace. A young father with his daughter on his arm walks over and tells the girl to give the soldier a kiss. Since the army refused to fire on demonstrators last week, every soldier has become a national hero.

"The mood is similar to that following the fall of the Berlin Wall," says Jürgen Theres, who for seven years has been the head of the Tunis-based Maghreb office of the Hans Seidel Foundation. Theres believes the euphoria of many Tunisians is justified. The country, he says, could very well make the transition into a genuine democracy. "People here are disciplined and civic-minded, the public administration functions, there is a modern welfare state, and all the structures are in place," he says. Tunisia also places a great focus on education, he adds. "It is further developed than, for example, Portugal was when it became part of the European Union."

It was, Theres says, the "boundless stupidity and greed" of his in-laws which ultimately cost Ben Ali his hold on power. "The people could no longer stand the state of permanent humiliation," he says, which was particularly bad over the last five years. "It got to the point," Theres says, "that Tunisia's major investors pulled out of the business life here and only invested abroad." The rapacity of the ruling family caused normal business activity to come to a standstill, he adds.

Better Shape than Before

According to Theres, what Tunisia really needs now is stimulus. The Tunisian upper class has to bring its money back home, and Europe needs to offer its support. "We have to show that we don't just pay lip service to our values," Theres says. Should Tunisia emerge from the crisis in better shape than before, it could serve as a beacon to the entire Arab world, he says. "If it works here," he says, "other countries will follow suit."

Jamil Hayder is also optimistic. A city planner and veteran member of the opposition who spent years behind bars because of his liberal views, says, "since the Islamists are weak in Tunisia, they don't really present much of a danger." Although the opposition must still organize itself, Hayder doesn't see that as a particularly high hurdle. Likewise, although many of the ministers in the new government served under Ben Ali, they did not actively support the despot's policies.

"They enjoy enough trust to be entrusted with setting up a transitional government," Hayder says. "I am so happy," he adds, spreading his arms out wide. "The years of fighting look finally to be over."

'We Aren't in Saudi Arabia'

On Tuesday afternoon, Hayder's optimism appeared to be slightly premature. Several opposition politicians resigned from the country's day-old cabinet in protest at the fact that many key posts did not change hands despite Ben Ali's departure. Three ministers with the country's largest trade union quit as did Health Minister Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the opposition party FDLT.

Furthermore, several hundred people took to the streets in Tunis to protest against the new cabinet of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi. Police confronted the protesters with tear gas.

In al-Masra, though, things were quiet. On Monday, residents assembled barricades using tires and bricks and carried arms. Their makeshift defense was effective -- the presidential guard, holed up in the despot's palace in nearby Carthage, didn't get far during a breakout attempt the previous night.

Such roadblocks, though, have made travel through the city difficult. Not far from the main railway station, a group of women armed with sticks have set up a road block. "Long live Tunisia!" they shout. "We are defending our neighborhood and our freedom." None of them are wearing veils. "We aren't in Saudi Arabia here," she says. "We couldn't care less about the Islamists."

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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