The 18 men and women have formed a circle, with some sitting and others standing. They are holding one of the first editorial meetings ever convened at La Presse, a daily newspaper in the Tunisian capital Tunis. They discuss the tremendous things happening in their county and what should appear in tomorrow's paper.
They are intoxicated with newfound energy. Now they want to do all the things they have never done before. They want to tell the stories that will stir the country, stories about the little bookshop around the corner displaying formerly banned books, about how stores are gradually reopening their doors but food shortages continue, and about how people on the street are criticizing the new government. All of that is supposed to appear in the next day's edition.
They also want to write articles about the social networking Internet platform Facebook, which has become an alternative source of news for the country's youth. They are even considering downloading and printing images circulating online of police violence and destruction from all over the country.
Still, they are not completely sure how far they should allow themselves to go. They debate and argue over whether they should criticize individual ministers who are particularly incompetent and whether they should identify all the authors of opinion pieces by name.
Euphoria and Apprehension
Faouzia Mezzi is leading the meeting. While the autocratic former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still ruled the country, there were times when she was banned from writing articles. Today, she is having a hard time restraining those staff members who would prefer to change everything immediately. "We first need to see if we can even publish a newspaper at all," she says. "Be patient."
At the time, it had only been five days since Ben Ali, Tunisia's dictator for 23 years, fled the country, and only the fifth day that the country had enjoyed freedom of the press. No one gave it to these journalists; they simply took it. While the country was rising up against the regime, they launched their own revolution.
But there appear to be limits to the new freedom. The interim government shut down the country's most popular private television station, Hannibal TV, on Sunday night. The New York Times, quoting Tunisia's state news agency, reported that the government had arrested the station's owner, which it accused of treason for broadcasting "false information likely to create a constitutional vacuum and destabilize the country." A spokesman for the station, which had criticized Ben Ali's government in the past, said that it had been shut down without warning and called the move a violation of freedom of the press.
By Monday morning, however, the station had resumed broadcasting, apparently after an opposition member of the interim government intervened. Observers in Tunisia told the New York Times that the network's shutdown damaged the interim government's credibility and said that the fate of the station would be seen as a test of the state's commitment to press freedom.
La Presse, which appears in both French and Arabic versions, is one of the country's oldest newspapers. Like almost all media sources in Tunisia, it is government-owned, meaning the state appoints its senior editors. During the dictatorship, those editors would dictate the issues to be covered, as well as censor anything that could upset the regime. Naturally, the journalists also practiced self-censorship. Indeed, until the revolution, La Presse was little more than a bland mouthpiece for government statements.
On Friday, January 14, 2011, even before Ben Ali and his family had been chased out of the country, the paper's staff allowed itself to be infected by the same lust for freedom that had gripped the entire country. They stripped the editor in chief of power and designated a group of 10 people to be in charge of managing the paper.
The former editor in chief still has his office with its leather chair and he can be spotted skulking along the corridor, but he no longer has any say. The journalists formerly under his charge have been busy discovering what it means to live in a free society -- just like people throughout Tunisia these days.
Back at the meeting, Olfa Belhassine from the paper's culture section proposes an editorial entitled "Who's Afraid of Press Freedom?" She adds that, in her 20 years of working in the media, she has always dreamed of writing just such an article. The next day, it appears in the paper.
An Orderly Revolution
In the newspaper's offices on the Rue Ali Bach Hamba in Tunis, you can sense all of the emotions the Tunisians have experienced since driving their dictator out of the country. There is the euphoria that has broken out as people look forward to a new era. But there is also the fear that it could all soon be over. With each passing day, the fear dissipates a little.
In the week since Ben Ali was toppled, Tunisians have experienced a social transformation of terrifying speed. Each day, those in power make new concessions to the protesters on the streets. On Tuesday, January 18, Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister who had briefly served as acting president, left the old ruling RCD party. On Thursday, he was followed by the rest of the ministers. Then, the party's central committee was dissolved, and a minister from the old regime stepped down. In its first meeting, the new cabinet resolved to grant amnesty to all political prisoners and to give legal standing to all political parties, including those of the Islamists.
It is an orderly revolution. The streets are still swept, and the streetcars still keep to their schedules while winding their way through the crowds. The capital's main railway station made it through the protests with only a bit of fire damage. A ticket inspector there is proud that not a single long-distance train was cancelled.
Saved by the Military
At least in the minds of many Tunisians, the military saved the country. In just a few days' time, they succeeded in subduing the murderous forces loyal to the departed dictator and putting the police in their place. Last week, when it looked like the transitional government might suddenly collapse again, many were even hoping that the army would intervene. But it remained in the background.
Toward the end of last week, the situation appeared to have stabilized, although there were still tanks on the streets, and soldiers were stationed along the major promenades and in front of government buildings.
But the situation in the capital Tunis remains tense. On Monday, police used tear gas on protesters who had defied an overnight curfew to gather in front of the prime minister's office, where they shouted anti-government slogans. The demonstrators are unhappy that many of Ben Ali's cronies are still in power. Schools were due to reopen after being closed during the unrest, but teachers reportedly went on strike in a protest against the interim government. Some students apparently joined protests instead of going to school.
'Revenge Is Only a Minor Matter'
In the waiting room outside the office of Ahmed Ibrahim, the newly appointed minister for higher education and scientific research, there is still a nail on the wall where the portrait of Ben Ali hung until just a few days ago. His satisfied-looking face, which used to be seen all over the city, has now vanished.
Ibrahim, an imposing 64-year-old with a round head, had been jailed by Ben Ali a number of times. But now he is a member of the government. During the most recent presidential elections, in 2009, he was allowed to run for office; Ben Ali's regime wanted to use him to give a veneer of legitimacy to the proceedings. Officially, he received 1.57 percent of the vote.
"Revenge is now only a minor matter," Ibrahim says in his poorly lit office in the Ministry of Higher Education. He doesn't want to see what happened in Iraq happen here; he doesn't want there to be a witch hunt against former members of the RCD. Around one-tenth of Tunisia's population of 10 million belonged to the former ruling party, but most of them did so as a matter of convenience rather than because they were die-hard supporters.
In Ibrahim's opinion, only the real criminals should be prosecuted. What's much more important, he says, is to focus on preparing for free elections. The country's constitution stipulates that they need to be held within 60 days, but Tunisia currently has few organized political parties. The country needs more time, Ibrahim says. He thinks it will take six or seven months.
On the streets, at least, democracy has already arrived. Avenue Habib Bourguiba, a large boulevard in downtown Tunis, has developed into a political forum where people can hold impassioned debates. All of them hate the old elite. But, when it comes to the future, they have very different ideas.
On Thursday afternoon, there are dozens of young men with short beards and sunglasses standing on the boulevard. "God has done all of this," one says, before going on to advocate a religious government. Another one is arguing with a young woman wearing makeup. She says she is afraid of these people, that she's anxious about the possibility of the Islamists becoming a major political force. At the moment, nowhere else in the Arab world do women enjoy as many rights as they do in Tunisia; nowhere else can you see so many women without headscarves.
For the time being, the Islamists are only a scattered minority, and experts interviewed by SPIEGEL believe they could at best only secure 20 percent of the vote. But, over the course of the week, they made their presence felt more and more on the streets in their efforts to whip up sentiments against "imported ideas."
More than anything, most of the demonstrators want to see an end to corruption. And the protesters are by no means only educated young people who organize themselves on Facebook. Their ranks also include people like Khaled Gasmi, a gaunt 57-year-old man with a moustache, who played for Tunisia's national team during the 1978 football World Cup. Gasmi says that Fouad Mebazaa, the interim president, is part of the old regime and just as corrupt as Ben Ali.
Dawning of a New Era
Just a few steps away, a man walks down the street wearing a green fez. His name is Maatoug Mohsen, and he's on his way to a meeting to found a new Green Party for Tunisia. For years, Mohsen worked as a tour guide, and now he wants to devote himself to the two issues that concern him the most: the battle for sustainable development and the fight against pesticides in agriculture.
These are the times for founding new parties and entering into serious debates. Tunisia is living through its first days on the way to becoming a democracy.
The symbols of the new era are the destroyed palaces of the presidential clan, which bore the brunt of the population's rage. That anger was directed primarily at the villas of the Trabelsis, the family of the president's second wife, who were notorious for their shameless self-enrichment. The houses of this family's members, located in the rich suburbs of Tunis, now lie in ruins after having been looted. Thousands of people make pilgrimages to them -- including many families with all their children in tow -- curious to see the ruins of the dictatorship with their own eyes.
One particularly tasteless and gaudy building was the palace of Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of Ben Ali. These days, the only thing left of the formerly two-story property, which has its own park, is the bare brickwork. The interior has been burnt to a crisp and gutted; even the window frames have disappeared. The floors are strewn with garbage, such as a package of hair dye, a receipt from a Dolce & Gabbana store in Paris and a piece of paper from a school civics course with "Constitution: The Foundation of the State" written in a child's hand.
When they witness the damage, many of the visitors become upset. As they see it, the houses should be preserved and handed over to the people. Even so, they all share in the widespread hatred toward the expelled family. "They were thieves," says Dorra Kallel Chtourou, a young women in business attire who came here on her lunch break with one of her coworkers. She works for LG Electronics, the South Korean electronics giant. She explains how Belhassen used to smuggle stereo systems and washing machines into the country and have his people sell them on street corners for half the going price.
This is just one of the many stories being told about the clan whose proximity to the state's supreme ruler allowed it to ruthlessly enrich itself. The clan's members even had their own type of license plates so that the police would leave them in peace.
Molding the New Tunisia
The man charged with coming up with a vision for the new Tunisia is Yadh Ben Achour. He enters his private library wearing a black running suit and sits down under a portrait of his grandfather, who was an important religious scholar.
Hardly any place seems as far removed from the demonstrations and wrangling of last week as this room, located on the top floor of a massive villa in La Marsa, a wealthy coastal town near Tunis. Thousand-year-old examples of Islamic calligraphy hang on the wall, while display cabinets hold pocket watches from the Ottoman era.
Ben Achour is a writer and lawyer. A worldly man as well as a Koran scholar, he belongs to an old aristocratic Tunisian family and is widely respected. He is an intellectual who wears thin, black metal glasses and speaks French with a perfect Parisian accent. In May 1968, when he was studying law in Paris, the police beat him on the head with truncheons.
Ben Achour says that it wasn't economic necessity that drove the country's youth to revolt. Instead, it was the climate of oppression within the system, of which having a distinct set of license plates was merely one example.
He has been given the job of heading the commission for political reform. In this role, he will have a hand in inventing and significantly shaping the new Tunisia. Even if he won't be making decisions alone, he says it's clear what he personally wants Tunisia to become: a country with a democratically elected parliament, guided by a government and a prime minister. He also concedes that the country needs a president, but he say the position should only be granted a limited amount of power.
"That's the essence of democracy," Ben Achour says. "Whoever wins cannot completely savor his victory. That's what it's all about."
At the moment, he doesn't know how he will arrive at that goal. The remaining members of the commission haven't even been named yet. In any case, he believes that the country needs much longer than just two months before it can hold elections.
But Ben Achour also says that if India, with its many languages and enormous population, can become a democracy, Tunisia, with its well-educated population, can also manage to become the most progressive and modern country in the Arab world.