After starting wave of revolution, Tunisia tries to preserve its own

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 31, 2011 

TUNIS, Tunisia — Lina Ben Mhenni's blog isn't banned in her home country anymore. Secret police no longer shadow her every move, and she doesn't fear thugs breaking into her parents' home again and making off with her laptop and camera, as they did last spring.

Still, Ben Mhenni isn't sure she's happy with how things are going, three months after a people's rebellion overthrew this small North African nation's 23-year dictatorship and sparked the historic wave of protests that are remaking the Arab world.

"I don't think that the country is on the right track," Ben Mhenni, 27, said, shaking her head as she watched a small demonstration on the steps of the municipal theater call for criminal trials for the country's deposed president and his associates. "The government is trying to say these demonstrators have personal demands, but they have political demands. The government is not really working toward real democracy."

In the new Tunisia, there's no denying the first tentative steps toward democracy.

The transitional government has dissolved former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's monopolistic ruling party, broken his family's mafia-like hold on the economy, forced the resignation of a prime minister who had ties to the old regime, disbanded the reviled secret police and lifted a stranglehold on free speech.

New elections are scheduled for July, while a high council of jurists and intellectuals drafts new electoral laws and determines whether to try ex-regime figures for corruption, torture and other abuses. For the first time in two decades, Tunisia's countless cafes are abuzz with open debates about the country's political future.

"Under Ben Ali we were a country of 10 million soccer coaches," said a radio host, Noureddine Ben Ticha, referring to the old national obsession. "Now we are 10 million political analysts."

But there's also a struggle to maintain the momentum for change.

More than 50 political parties have registered for the July elections, including some headed by well known former members of the ruling party and others by total unknowns.

Sporadic sit-ins demanding swifter reforms and economic progress have snarled traffic outside government buildings, leading to several arrests last week in the first significant confrontation between demonstrators and security forces since the uprising.

Even the high council has come in for criticism for meeting behind closed doors and has nearly doubled in size after Tunisians complained that it excluded women, Islamists, young people and residents from outside the capital.

Democracy, as Ben Mhenni is learning, in some ways is messier than revolution.

As the daughter of a former political prisoner, her skepticism of the country's political elite is deep and abiding. She still looks the part of the impatient young activist — perched at the edge of her chair, her eyes distracted, a jumbled necklace of silver coins cascading from her neck.

With its thinly veiled references to Ben Ali — whom she often called "the rock," dull and immovable — her blog, "A Tunisian Girl," was banned along with many other websites critical of the regime. Government goons harassed her even when she went to buy coffee, once loudly proclaiming to startled passers-by that she contracted AIDS on a trip to the U.S. (She was a Fulbright scholar at Tufts University in 2008.)

Channeling the zeal of its revolutionaries into a new political system is difficult for any country in transition. With its small, homogenous and well educated population, experts say that this former French colony may have the best chance of any Arab nation to build a representative democracy from the rubble of its toppled autocracy.

Failure, however, could also have ripple effects in the region.

"All these factors mean it probably will succeed and that it will be a positive model for other countries," said a Western diplomat in Tunis whose government wouldn't authorize him to be quoted by name.

"Conversely, if it doesn't work here, then there's a real risk that people who don't want democracy to work . . . will point to the reasons why we shouldn't go down the democratic path."

Secret State Department cables released by WikiLeaks described Tunisia under Ben Ali as "sclerotic" and corrupt to the core. His clan of extended relatives — often referred to simply as "the Family" — dominated the media and, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008, comprised "seemingly half of the Tunisian business community."

The transitional government in February seized the assets of 110 Ben Ali family members and associates, but some argue that the list needs to be expanded.

Other reforms are needed, many argue, if the old guard's lock on Tunisian politics is to be broken forever.

Omar Mestiri, a human rights activist and member of the high council, applied to start an independent radio station but was told by government officials that a one-year license to broadcast nationwide would cost about $845,000 — a sum that's "out of the question for anyone except members of the old elite," he said.

He's worried that many station managers, newspaper editors and media personalities who were in thrall to the regime remain in their posts.

"People who were for Ben Ali are now for the revolution," Mestiri said. "They behave as if nothing happened."

Away from the European-style chic of the capital, the economic grievances that launched the uprising continue to bite. In Zarzis, a sleepy southeastern port town, many complained that the new government had few concrete proposals to create jobs or improve living standards in the country's interior.

Mouflah Ajaouda, who has a college degree in engineering, said the best job he could get was as a technician for a state-owned construction company, where he earns about $180 a month. That's barely enough to cover his meals and bus fare, says Ajaouda, who's nearly 30 and lives with his parents.

"It's hard to even afford cigarettes or new clothes, and getting married is out of the question," Ajaouda said. "It is difficult because you feel you are capable and competent but you don't have the means."

One afternoon recently, he and three friends were at the port on a mission: They were searching for a jobless friend who'd suddenly disappeared from home. They feared he'd come to Zarzis to buy passage on a tiny, overcrowded fishing boat bound for Europe — a clandestine migration that's accelerated since January, after Tunisian security forces deployed to cities during the revolution.

Over the past two months, the United Nations says that more than 10,000 Tunisians have arrived by boat on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a gateway to Europe 70 miles across the Mediterranean. Italian authorities call the migration a humanitarian emergency.

Ahmed Ghoummidh, a curly-haired fisherman in Zarzis, said that his 19-year-old brother was fed up with being unemployed and borrowed several hundred dollars from relatives last month to make the crossing. He's found his way to France, where he's looking for work as a plumber.

"All men have the idea that Europe is better than here," Ghoummidh said. "For my brother, the revolution made him happy, but it didn't make him rich."

ON THE WEB:

Lina Ben Mhenni's blog: A Tunisian Girl (external site)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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