Chaos Threatens Tunisia's Revolution

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Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

A member of the Tunisian national guard talks to a citizen as he stands guard near a tank downtown in Tunis January 16, 2011.

Tunisia appeared to tip towards all-out chaos on Sunday evening as fierce gun battles exploded in the heart of the capital, with the military attempting to root out thousands of well-armed militia loyal to the ousted dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali. Two days after Ben Ali abandoned his 23-year rule and fled the country, forced out by an extraordinary month-long popular revolt, the street battles topped a tautly tense weekend, in which the country seemed perched between armed conflict and near-normality.

As sun set on downtown Tunis, machine-gun fire exploded on the streets outside my hotel, amid office and apartment buildings, cafes and train stations. Shortly before, soldiers had ordered hotel guests inside and cordoned off several blocks of the city center, before unleashing a no-holds-barred battle with the armed militia prowling the streets. The battle began with small arms fire and was then followed with the sound of heavy automatic fire. One hour into it, police aligned with the military burst into the rooms of hotel guests, ordering us to close curtains, for fear of attracting the attention of military snipers hanging from the open doors of two helicopters circling overhead. Masoud Ramdhani of Tunisia's League of Human Rights said by telephone that the military was attempting to corner about 3,000 of the 6,200 of Ben Alis well-armed Presidential Guard still not arrested. The gunfire around the hotel only began to die down towards 8 p.m., two-and-a-half hours after it had begun. Meanwhile, wire reports had a fierce battle taking place in front of the presidential palace in Carthage, about 10 miles away.

Earlier in the day, while the sun was out, calm and chaos seemed to be competing for primacy the capital. On one block, a group of six small boys kicked a football around an empty street, laughing; and on the next block, police hauled away three armed militia, after being alerted by locals who suspected that the trio were harboring caches of weapons. While men crowded into the sole barber shop open in downtown Tunis, teenage boys in the Montplaisir neighborhood erected a barricade to protect their street from looters and gunmen. Food has grown increasingly scarce as mass protests and strikes have shut almost all businesses. Crowds gathered outside the few stores that dared unlock their metal shutters and sell essential items like bread and orange juice.

It is still uncertain how this Jasmine Revolution, as it is dubbed in the Tunisian media, will unfold. Whatever government is formed will need to amend Tunisia's constitution to allow banned political parties to contest an election — a basic demand of the masses of protesters. Since yesterday, opposition parties, for years were barred from challenging Ben Ali, have been in talks with the interim president Fouad Mebazaa, their closed-door discussions focused on how to form a temporary unity government to run the country until they can organize democratic elections. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said on state television that the new government would be announced on Monday. Mebazaa, who had been parliamentary speaker, the constitutionally designated next-in-line to the presidency, had been hastily sworn in as head of state 24 hours after Ben Ali fled (a loyalist of the dictator served for only one day in between). But elections will still be a problem even if a unity government is put in place. The constitution mandates that one must take place within 60 days. But officials have said they are more likely to need six months to organize.

After decades of one-party rule, there is a dire shortage of political talent at home; and several major contenders for leadership have been in exile for years. Reached by phone in Paris on Sunday, Moncef Marzouki, a physician and leader of the Congress of the Republic, a secular liberal party, said that he planned to return to Tunis on Tuesday, after more than 10 years as a refugee. Despite excitement over Ben Ali's overthrow, Marzouki said he was still uncertain whether he would be permitted to organize his party freely. "I am afraid that the dictator has left, but the dictatorship system is still there, and there is still repression."

Another factor in Tunisia's future is its major militant Islamist leader, Sheik Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the banned al-Nadhar party, who was exiled to London in 1988. By phone on Sunday, Ghannouchi said he has not yet booked his ticket home, but plans to return "soon," perhaps within weeks. "After more than 20 years of absence I will have to have time to reorganize our movement," he said, adding that he does not intend to participate in the elections. The sheik has said previously that he would like to see a far more conservative Islam take root in Tunisia, which is remarkably secular, with numerous beach resorts featuring scantily clad women. His impending arrival prompted one group of Tunisians to post a Facebook site on the weekend, vowing to greet Sheik Ghannouchi at the airport wearing bikinis. Indeed, the revolt which drove Ben Ali from power found little inspiration in Islam, in stark contrast, say, to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The uprising began on Dec. 17, after a 26-year-old computer science graduate Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight, after police ordered him to stop selling vegetables on the street; he had been unable to find a job in his profession. When Bouazizi died shortly after from his burns, the country erupted in a seemingly spontaneous mutiny against Ben Ali, mobilizing giant protests and strikes through Facebook, Twitter and mass-distribution text messages on mobile phones. They stormed into the street to demand a change of leadership, defying Ben Ali's iron-fisted rule. Last Friday it became clear that Tunisia's professional Army, which has fielded hundreds of soldiers in U.N. peace-keeping missions around the world, would not fire on protesters in order to protect the president. Within hours, Ben Ali and his family fled, leaving the country in turmoil.

Ordinary citizens, however, seemed to be rooting for the restoration of normality and civic life. Across Tunis, locals appeared to join the military's efforts to restore order. Fares Bouslimi, 40, a philosophy professor in a city high school, took a plastic bag from his home, and began clearing the debris from Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the boulevard where hundreds of thousands of people protested last Friday outside the Interior Ministry building, a spectacle that finally drove Ben Ali out. "This is sacred ground," Bouslimi told me, explaining why he opted to spend his Sunday morning cleaning the street, despite the fact that soldiers were perched atop tanks along the avenue, ordering people not to walk outside. "This is a true revolution," he said, "like the French Revolution or the American Revolution."

In the studio of Tunisia's most popular radio station Mosaïque FM on Sunday, Ibrahim Letayef, a journalist and film maker, called the past month's events a digital revolution, much of it fought by educated, middle class youth whose seething frustration at unemployment, corruption and repression drove them into the streets, toppling Ben Ali. "He saw the way the street was going, and he chose to save himself," said Letayef. Then, his mobile phone beeped: it was one of the many anonymous text messages he and thousands of other Tunisians have received during the past month, which helped organize the revolt. After weeks of upheaval, in which stores, schools and universities have been shut, and streets have been emptied of regular traffic, this text message was not a rallying cry to join in a mass protest. Instead, it said: "For the love of Tunisia, conquer your fears and return to work. Please pass on this message."