Tunisia Travels Long, Chaotic Road To Democracy

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Egypt's revolution was inspired by Tunisia's, and so far seems to be following pretty much the same script — even if it is on a much larger scale. If the Egyptians succeed in overthrowing Mubarak, they will probably continue to closely observe how the Tunisian people are making their transition from dictatorship to democracy. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Tunis, it won't be easy or quick. And things are still pretty chaotic.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The popular uprising in Egypt was inspired by events in Tunisia. Last month, the Tunisian people overthrew their longtime dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Now, the country is slowly trying to reinvent itself.

But as Eleanor Beardsley reports, the path from dictatorship to democracy is long and chaotic.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: It's hard to read the streets of Tunis these days. On one side of the city's main boulevard, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, cafes and stores are open, and industrious Tunisians have gone back to work.

(Soundbite of chanting)

BEARDSLEY: On the other side, protesters still march and chant, making for one horrific traffic jam in between.

The transitional government has been reshuffled several times to appease protesters. And while many Tunisians say they are satisfied, others say they won't shut up until every last person from Ben Ali's party has been purged.

Thirty-three-year-old Amen Labizi(ph) says the country has become a bubbling cauldron since Ben Ali fled.

Mr. AMEN LABIZI: You see what's happening? We were all against Ben Ali. And today, poor are against rich and rich are against poor, and each one is trying to say it's my revolution.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: A crowd begins to gather around Labizi. An argument heats up over whether the interim prime minister who served under Ben Ali should stay or go.

From her third floor office, above Bourguiba Avenue, Selma Jabbes(ph) watches everything unfold below.

Ms. SELMA JABBES: Now, everybody would like to find a new life with the new values, but we are always waiting to see a clear situation. There are not transparency in the words in the information on our TVs, our radios, our medias.

BEARDSLEY: Aside from the media, Jabbes also worries about the police. She says many of them can't be trusted because they were loyal to Ben Ali and are still trying to sow chaos. Just yesterday, 34 employees from the once feared Interior Ministry were arrested.

The one thing people keep saying over and over here is that the situation is far from clear.

Mr. ERIC GOLDSTEIN (Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa, Human Rights Watch): Well, I think people are waking up from a deep sleep.

BEARDSLEY: That's Eric Goldstein, coordinator of Human Rights Watch in Tunisia. He says while the president's main allies fled, Ben Ali's network is still largely in place across the country.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: That is a heavy apparatus, and it's not as if those people and those institutions have been pushed aside. You know, the head was chopped off.

BEARDSLEY: Goldstein says Tunisians will have to stay mobilized if they want to see this revolution through to the end.

After 23 years of frustration under a dictatorship, people everywhere seem to be claiming what's theirs. In the hallways of the Sports and Youth Ministry, hundreds of university graduates with special degrees in physical education are demanding the jobs they were promised, but which went to friends and family of the president.

Ben Ali placed a huge emphasis on sports to keep the people otherwise occupied, say Tunisians. The country has 36 national soccer teams, and the city of Tunis alone boasts 11 stadiums.

The new undersecretary for youth and sports is 32-year-old Slim Amamou. As a computer blogger, he was jailed under the Ben Ali regime. Today, Amamou seeks refuge in his office from the clamoring demands of the hallway.

Mr. SLIM AMAMOU: All this social movement and everything you see -people that don't agree with the government and don't agree with each other and everything - it's part of the new construction of Tunisia. We're learning and building a new democracy. So this is the way to do it, I think. There is no other way.

BEARDSLEY: Amamou says he has no good news for the young job seekers outside his door. The new democratic Tunisia will have no need for so many civil servants, he says. The emphasis now, says Amamou, will be on entrepreneurship.

For NPR news, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis.

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