Tunisians bask in new freedoms

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.

On Friday, hundreds marched from Habib Bourguiba across the capital to meet hundreds more rallying outside the doors of the Prime Minister’s office on Friday.

Some displayed homemade banners saying “RCD out of government!” as others attempted to scale the walls of the building.

“The dictator is gone. But the dictatorship is still here! We have to uproot it!” screamed one man to the crowd.

Ghannouchi appealed for calm during a televised speech to the nation late on Friday night, saying he would not remain in office following the organization of elections.

Many in Tunis seemed unconvinced the following day.

More than 1,000 protesters gathered on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on Saturday chanting anti-government slogans.

Some members of the country’s security services, saluting and singing the national anthem, also demonstrated in an apparent attempt to show solidarity with Tunisians after a month of violence.

Seventy-eight people were killed during clashes since the unrest began in mid-December, according to the government.

The United Nations estimates that over 100 were killed, many by police using live-fire during demonstrations.

“We will not stop demonstrating until the RCD ministers are out of government. The change that has happened is only a ‘half change’ so far,” said Ghamra Zenaidi, 53, who brought her 16-year-old daughter to witness the transformation on Habib Bourguiba. “Complete change is urgent, and we will not leave until they do.”

With protests scattered throughout the city, security forces and army tanks were still occupying areas outside government buildings and in several intersections throughout the capital on Saturday.

The nationwide curfew was extended, but still in effect, and military helicopters still could be seen and heard patroling above.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, a man has died by self-immolation, according to an Associated Press report on Saturday.

Several attempted suicides and deaths by self-immolation have been reported from Algeria to Egypt in the past week, following the death of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi in early January.

Bouazizi’s suicide protest on Dec. 17 in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid sparked the uprising that eventually led to Ben Ali’s departure.

On Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunisian protesters were aware of the impact their uprising has had both locally and across North Africa and the Middle East.

“It’s not just this street that symbolizes change. It’s happening on every street in Tunisia,” said the mother, Zenaidi. “We never expected this day to come here. But now that it has, I want the freedoms we’ve found to spread to countries throughout the region.”