With Former Leader Out, Tunisians Speak Freely Life in the streets seems to be returning to normal nearly a week after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown. But one thing has changed: There's a lot more talking. And unlike in the old days, no topic is taboo.
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With Former Leader Out, Tunisians Speak Freely

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With Former Leader Out, Tunisians Speak Freely

With Former Leader Out, Tunisians Speak Freely

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On a Thursday morning, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Tunisia is still struggling to put together a functioning provisional government and make sense of the upheaval that drove its president from power.

Officials opened an investigation yesterday into the ex-president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and arrested dozens of his family members for having allegedly plundered millions of dollars.

INSKEEP: Government ministers who'd been part of Ben Ali's ruling party have reportedly quit the party in an effort to distance themselves from the former ruler. The new interim president promised a total break from the past.

MONTAGNE: As Eleanor Beardsley reports, life in the streets has calmed down, but the Tunisian people are no longer afraid to speak out.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Everywhere around Tunis, it seems that people can't stop talking. Cafes are packed with chattering coffee drinkers, while clusters of people engaged in animated discussions block the sidewalks. And unlike the old days, no subject is taboo.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

BEARDSLEY: In front of Tunisia's high court, scores of lawyers laugh and converse in the warm January sun. The judicial system was heavily controlled under President Ben Ali, and lawyers here say they feel like they've been released from a sort of prison. Hassan Larbi describes the best part of the revolution.

Mr. HASSAN LARBI (Attorney): Freedom, people can talk freely. They can say whatever they want. We can criticize the government, and that's why we're happy.

BEARDSLEY: And criticize the government they have.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: Hundreds of protesters gathered on Tunis' central Habib Bourghuiba Avenue to shout: out with the RCD. That's former president Ben Ali's political party. These protesters say members of the old regime have no place in a new government, even if it is only temporary.

But not all Tunisians are taking such a hard stand against the new coalition government.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Across town in this working class neighborhood, 28-year-old Bessim Zitouni says he supports the government. He says Ben Ali's henchmen have all fled, and not everyone in the ex-president's party is bad.

Mr. BESSIM ZITOUNI: (Through translator) We're in a critical period now, but we're going to come through it. Tunisians have great solidarity. And that will see us through. I know we're going to have a great future.

BEARDSLEY: Suddenly, another man walks up and begins to argue with Zitouni. Ben Ali's people have to get out, he says. We are not free as long as they're still in our government. We need to be patient, insists Zitouni.

Scenes like this are playing out loudly all over the city. And no matter what their opinion, Tunisians said they were happy, at least, to be able to express it. But some citizens are truly afraid the provisional government will try to stay on and steal their revolution from them. They've heard promises of democracy too many times, they say.

Omeyya Seddik is a member of the main opposition party in the government. He says they are trying to convince the politicians who resigned from the interim Cabinet to come back. This government must work, he says.

Mr. OMEYYA SEDDIK: (Through translator) We had such an extraordinary reversal of things in such a short period of time. Tunisia doesn't have the means to put a democratic system in place immediately. We need a transition period to carry out some reforms that will lead to elections in six months.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: As he looks out the window at the protesters, Seddik says he understands their concerns. But if the transitional government fails, he says, the country risks plunging into chaos and being taken over by the military and police, a catastrophic scenario. Seddik says Ben Ali's party has run Tunisia for decades, and the Tunisian people will have to put up with it for a little while longer.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis.

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