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Tunisians bask in new freedoms

Tunisians continue to take to the streets, pushing for the prime minister to step down.

Tunisia Protests
Police hold back protesters outside the Tunisian prime minister's office on Jan. 22, 2011, in Tunis. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

TUNIS, Tunisia — Thousands of protesters, from university students to members of security forces, march peacefully past shuttered storefronts and military barricades, railing against perceived government injustices in this tiny North African state.

Most clap as they chant, creating a deafening roar that echoes for several blocks throughout the surrounding neighborhood.

Others walk in silence, draped in red-and-white Tunisian flags or carrying placards emblazoned with nationalist slogans like "Long live the revolution!”

But all of them come to this street to speak their minds.

“We Tunisians can now speak freely for the world to hear us!” cried one demonstrator from the top rung of a wooden park bench to a throng of people cheering below.

Welcome to the famous Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a trendy, tree-lined boulevard of cafes, hotels and designer clothing stores running through in the heart of Tunisia’s capital.

These days, however, many businesses are closed.

Army helicopters patrol from the skies above, and soldiers stand guard on the ground atop tanks positioned at either end of the street.

The lively Habib Bourguiba street, named after the first of only two presidents to rule Tunisia since 1957, is also home to the country's Ministry of Interior and a spiraling clock tower built to commemorate the last president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

In the one week since Ben Ali fled the country, following a massive, countrywide uprising over unemployment and government corruption that started in mid-December, Habib Bourguiba Avenue has been transformed by daily protests of up to thousands of people.

Demonstrators are mostly seeking to put an end to the leadership of Tunisia’s Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who many regard as a staunch political ally of Ben Ali.

In many ways, Habib Bourguiba Avenue has become a symbol of the newfound liberties Tunisians are basking in after years of Ben Ali’s restrictions on public gatherings, free speech and the independent media.

But the heavy security presence here also underscores the multitude of challenges lying ahead for a country trying to end more than five weeks of unrest. Many Tunisians here said the daily protests would continue until every remnant of Ben Ali’s government has been purged, raising concerns of further upheaval in the country.

“We may have won the battle, but the war is not over yet,” said Wagdy Kharroube, 28, a protester on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. “Yes, we can now express our opinions freely. And our opinion is that we want a new government.”

The new government's goal is to lead the transition in Tunisia until elections for the next president can be held, scheduled indefinitely for the next few months.

Led by Ghannouchi, the government was formed last week in a desperate attempt to hasten national unity following the surprise ouster of Ben Ali.

Several reforms, such as the inclusion of opposition figures into Ghannouchi's coalition, were carried out immediately to mollify enraged protesters.

Amnesty to certain political prisoners was granted. Also, a ban on some of the country’s political parties was lifted, even for the Islamist al-Nahda movement.

But several holdovers from Ben Ali’s ruling RCD party, including the minster of interior — seen by many as responsible for much of the violence over the past month of unrest — were voted to remain in the coalition government.

The ministers formerly aligned with Ben Ali’s government were quick to quit the RCD party.

Still, their inclusion has kept many Tunisians angry and protesting on the streets.