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Libyan Revolt: It All Started With Tunisia


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Libyans awoke, this morning, to a new dawn, a nation no longer in the grip of a dictator. Moammar Gadhafi was killed yesterday, after being captured in his hometown of Sirte, where fierce fighting had raged for weeks between his loyalists and anti-Gadhafi forces.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Libya just a few days ago. This morning, in Islamabad, she called the death of Gadhafi an end to an unfortunate chapter in Libya's history.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: It is our hope that what I saw in Tripoli on Tuesday, first-hand, the eagerness of Libyans to begin building a new democracy, can now begin in earnest.

MONTAGNE: The news of the Gadhafi's death spurred celebrations across many parts of the Arab world, including neighboring Tunisia, where, you'll recall, the Arab Spring began last winter.

Eleanor Beardsley is in the capital, Tunis, and joins us.

And, Eleanor, what are people telling you?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, first of all, there was great joy in the streets. You know, beeping of horns, waving of the Libyan rebel flag. I mean everyone seemed to be celebrating here, as well. And also, you know, what you have to realize is, Tunisia - after Libya -probably bore the brunt of this revolution in more than any other country. Hundreds of thousands of Libyan refugees have been pouring into Tunisia for the last six months.

So there's lots of Libyans in the capital of Tunis. And I actually ran into some fighters who were wounded, who are being treated in the hospital here. So, you know, the Tunisians are happy. There's lots of Libyans here, happy. The Tunisians have actually been living this revolution, sort of, with the Libyans, so there was great joy yesterday.

MONTAGNE: And, our Tunisians making the connection that it all began there?

BEARDSLEY: Oh, absolutely. In fact, the death of Moammar Gadhafi yesterday and the footage of him, you know, bloodied and dying, just brought back a reminder of how far they've come. Because, you know, nine months ago, Renee, they overthrew their own dictator, Zein al-Abideen Bin Ali. And, you know, took to the streets.

The revolution was a lot less bloody than in Libya, a lot faster. But there is a pride that it all started here. They know that they also encouraged the Libyans to revolt against Gadhafi. So, you know, people are proud. It's a reminder of how far they've come. And they're having their first democratic elections this very weekend. So they're just miles away from where the Libyans are. And there's an absolute realization of how – still, how connected it all is, yes.

MONTAGNE: Well, Tunisians, of course, since it has been nine months, have had the most time in the Arab world to grapple with creating a better government. Have they any wisdom, would you say, to impart to their neighbor, Libya?

BEARDSLEY: Well, yeah. I mean it's funny because everyone is waiting for Sunday, because they say that for the last 50 years no one really knows what the Tunisian people are made of. You know, how many people out there are really Islamist, fundamentalists? How many people are democrats, feminists? And they're all going to find that out.

And since they overthrew their dictator, they've been discussing and arguing and, you know, trying to work it out. But they have not really had any, you know, hard violence since then. They are electing this assembly, 217 members.

They feel like that what's going to happen here, Sunday - if it goes smoothly, if they have a free and fair election, which everyone is predicting they will - that it will be a huge example to follow for all the neighbors, who have already followed in their path for the revolution. They can look at how they have conducted themselves, since, and how they're holding the elections. So absolutely, they know that they're setting the stage that everyone is looking at them.

MONTAGNE: One thing about Moammar Gadhafi, he cast a large shadow over the Arab world. He had a difficult relation with many Arab rulers. Is his violent end herald of yet more change in the region?

BEARDSLEY: Well, I think people here are seeing it as, yes. People have been talking about Syria. Bashar al-Assad, they say, is next. And I think that Gadhafi's fall symbolizes something very important. I think he was mean and cruel, and horribly tortured people and imprisoned them, but he also ridiculed his people - they were like little children. They had no dignity, so he symbolized the complete disdain these Arab leaders had for their people, probably more than any one.

And Tunisians are saying if Gadhafi can fall, then anyone can fall.

MONTAGNE: Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's Eleanor Beardsley speaking to us from Tunisia's capital, Tunis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.