After the Overthrow, Tunisians Turn to the Military

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Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

Tunisian army soldiers stand guard near a tank in downtown Tunis January 15, 2011. Hundreds of soldiers patrolled the streets of the Tunisian capital on Saturday where the prime minister was due to meet opposition parties to try to form a coalition after protests swept the president from power.

Updated: Jan. 15, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. EST

One day after Tunisia's president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, abandoning his 23-year dictatorship, tanks rumbled through the streets of the capital, attempting to impose order after weeks of turmoil. Meanwhile, many Tunisians vented their fury at what they saw as examples of the ostentatious lifestyles of the country's deposed leadership by smashing luxury cars and burning property belonging to the now exiled ruling family.

During a five-hour journey through Tunis and its suburbs, I saw dozens of smashed cars, as well as looted buildings and burned police stations. There were signs of food and gas shortages across the city, with shops shuttered by days of chaos. Containers are stacked up on the dock in Tunis' port on the Mediterranean, the quaysides void of people. There are long lines of cars outside the few gas stations that have fuel to sell. And in the city's biggest five-star hotel, there is not a drop of milk to drink.

There was loud celebratory honking through the suburbs after local radio stations announced at noon that Tunisia's parliamentary speaker Fouad Mebazaa had been appointed interim president, under the country's constitution, and that elections would be organized within 60 days. (Mebazaa replaced the unpopular "temporary" President Mohamed Ghannouchi, a technocrat economist who had served as Ben Ali's Prime Minister and who had stepped in after the dictator fled.) "All we young Tunisians want is to be allowed to live and let live," says Alexandre, 30, a drama student, in a cafe in El Masra, after hearing the news. "We want jobs. We want decent salaries," he says. And what will happen if the interim president retains power for decades, as Ben Ali did? "Never!" says his friend, picking up a glass and gesturing to throw it. "We will revolt again."

At least during daylight on Saturday, the four weeks of revolt and mass demonstrations appeared to have quieted, as exhausted Tunisians ventured outside, gathering in cafes and on sidewalks in anxious discussion about their country's lightning transformation. But tension and violence returned as soon as the dusk-to-dawn curfew began. Gunfire could be heard downtown at sunset. Two people were shot outside interior ministry not far from where I am staying. Reuters cited an unnamed senior military official saying that armed men were engaged in drive-by shootings though it is still unclear who they are targeting. Hotel staff relayed warnings from security police to guests not to open their windows, even a crack.

Elsewhere in Tunisia, about 60 prisoners died in the coastal resort city of Monastir, after setting their prison alight, believing that the authorities would then set them free. Walid Elleuch, 26, a medical intern in Monastir Hospital, told TIME by phone on Saturday night that the prisoners had died "of severe burns and asphyxiation," because the doors were not opened for them. Meanwhile, 1,200 men escaped a prison south of Tunis, according to the Associated Press. Apparently, soldiers at the prison opened fire after the inmates rioted and a prison official told the AP that the penitentiary's gates were opened to allow the prisoners to escape more bloodshed.

While many jubilant protesters credited social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for helping to speed their revolution (one report estimated that 18% of Tunisians are on Facebook, which the regime did not impede), several other factors were in play, including the weight of numbers of Tunisia's well-educated but unemployed youth as well as the martyrdom of Mohammed Bouazzi, the 26-year old fruitseller who set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid to protest the police preventing from doing business to feed his family because he did not have the proper paperwork. And then there was the critical role of the Army. A key moment during weeks of protests came earlier this week, when the Army's chief of staff was said to have refused Ben Ali's order to have his men open fire on unarmed protesters.

In the power vacuum left by Ben Ali, many Tunisians believe the gravest danger is conflict between the military — which they regard as professional and neutral — and the well-armed squads of security police, who are seen as having been aligned with Ben Ali, and whom Tunisians hold responsible for the 60 or so protester deaths since the uprising began on Dec. 17.

Traveling around Tunis, I was warned by many people that widespread violence could quickly return if thousands of armed security police choose to confront the military. Tunisians wonder whether Ben Ali will be replaced by a military junta, a new dictator, or — stunning for this region — a democracy ushered in by the extraordinary popular uprising which has rocked the autocratic governments of the region. "We have one big hope: the Army," says Naoufel, 47, a precious-metals importer who, like many people, was too scared to give his last name. Smoking with friends at a sidewalk cafe, he says, "The Army has all our confidence."

The military has been warmly received by the most of the populace. On Saturday, in Tunis suburb of El Masra, as two armored military trucks parked on the main traffic circle with about five soldiers on their roofs, rifles pointed at the street, civilian drivers honked their horns appreciatively, drawing smiles and waves from the soldiers. Around Tunis on Saturday, soldiers could be seen removing huge billboards of Ben Ali, which have been a feature of the city for decades.

By contrast, security police seemed to be on the defensive. In the suburb of Le Kram, a local police station was still smoldering, one of several destroyed during the past few days. But many Tunisians fear that it is only a matter of time before the police counter-attack. Indeed, the police had been active in the hours before dawn. After midnight Friday, I watched from my hotel room window as about three dozen plain-clothes policemen, many armed with wooden sticks and truncheons, pulled several young men from office and apartment buildings and beat them in the street. Hundreds of people caught in the huge demonstration on Friday afternoon had fled thick clouds of tear gas, by sheltering in hotels and office buildings. When the military and police imposed a no-go cordon around central Tunis, most were trapped, and hid through Friday night. "Police smashed the door after midnight and dragged us out," says a Tunisian man, who was visiting the city from his home in Belgium, and who had hid with about 30 others in an office building downtown. "We were terrified." After nightfall on Saturday, a rumor was tweeted saying the Army was going to use helicopters to root out Ben Ali holdouts.

Meanwhile, the Army has blocked roads leading to Ben Ali's family mansions. The property of the dictator and his kin have become targets of popular revenge. Ben Ali, who is now sheltering in Saudi Arabia, and his family became hugely wealthy by controlling key businesses. In the neighborhood of Cite Habib, flames leaped from the top windows of a villa owned by the nephew of Ben Ali's second wife Leila Trabelsi.

And it is not just mansions. Near Tunis's port of La Goulette, looters raided the Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen and Kia dealerships, which are all owned by Ben Ali's son-in-law Mohamed Sakher El Materi, a 28-year-old tycoon whose lavish lifestyle — complete with a pet tiger named Pasha — was vividly described by the former U.S. ambassador to Tunis, in a 2008 cable posted by Wikileaks. El Materi was reportedly arrested on Friday.

The looting does not have general approval, even though it is focused on the belongings of the Ben Ali dynasty. On the expressway running along the seafront, soldiers managed to stop several of the stolen cars, pulling their drivers out and handcuffing the looters, laying them face down on the ground. Clearly anxious that the current upheaval could lead to all-out chaos, passersby stopped to hurl insults at the looters; my taxi driver stopped and got out of the car, to deliver a sharp kick in the ribs to one of the arrested men.