12:01am

Thu January 20, 2011
Africa

With Former Leader Out, Tunisians Speak Freely

Tunisia is struggling to put together a functioning interim government nearly a week after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown. Still, life in the streets seems to be returning to normal -- with one exception: There's a lot more talking going on.

Cafes in the capital, Tunis, are packed with chattering coffee drinkers. Clusters of people engaged in animated discussions block the sidewalks. But unlike in the old days, no subject is taboo.

Lawyers outside Tunisia's high court say they feel like they've been released from a sort of prison. The judicial system was heavily controlled under Ben Ali.

That freedom is the best part about the revolution, Hassan Larbi says.

"People can talk freely; they can say what they want," he says. "And we can criticize the government, and that's why we are happy."

And criticize the government they have. Hundreds of protesters gathered on Tunis' central Habib Bourguiba Avenue to shout "out with the RCD!" These protesters say members of the ousted president's party have no place in a new government -- even if it is only temporary.

Patience Urged

But not all Tunisians are taking such a hard stand against the new coalition government. In a working-class neighborhood across town, 28-year-old Bessim Zitouni says he supports the government. He says Ben Ali's henchmen have all fled, and not everyone in the former president's party is bad.

"We're in a critical period now, but we're going to come through it," he says. "Tunisians have great solidarity. And that will see us through. I know we're going to have a great future."

Suddenly another man walks up and begins to argue that Ben Ali's people have to get out, that Tunisians are not free as long as they are part of the government. Zitouni insists on patience.

Scenes like this are playing out loudly all over the city, and no matter what their opinion, Tunisians say they are happy 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 before, they say.

Several opposition figures have resigned from the interim Cabinet, saying they refuse to serve with those in the party of the former dictator. But Omeyya Seddik, a member of the main opposition party, says his party is trying to convince those lawmakers to come back. This government must work, he says.

"We had such an extraordinary reversal of things in such a short period of time," he says. "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."

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 being taken over by the military and police, a catastrophic scenario.

Members of Ben Ali's party have run Tunisia for decades, he says, and the Tunisian people will have to put up with them for a little while longer. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.