By Don Duncan
The waves of unrest that are now challenging regimes across the Middle East and North Africa began with the revolution in Tunisia. Protesters there succeeded in toppling the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
But many Tunisians fear that what they gained with Ben Ali's ouster can be quickly undone.
Recent demonstrations generally go like this: Angry protestors march down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis' main thoroughfare, then riot police fire tear gas and start charging, and what was once a river of humanity becomes a vacant street in seconds.
"Traumatized, I'm traumatized. We never saw this kind of thing under Bourguiba, nor under Ben Ali, not even under the French," said Majid Saidi, who has been attending daily protests since last week.
The controversy was triggered by a video that appeared on Facebook of the former Interior Minister Farhat Rajhi.
Rajhi claimed that loyalists of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still remain in power even after the revolution. And he said that group would stage a military coup if Islamist parties win in July's election, which many people believe will happen.
Islamist groups were kept in check under Ben Ali. But since his ouster, there's been an explosion of religious political parties vying for power in the new Tunisia. The country's secular parties worry that once elected, Islamists would try to install Sharia law. And trying to contain the Islamist parties would be anti-democratic.
Two women ran along a side street away from Avenue Bourguiba, trying to escape the tear gas and riot police. Fatima, who would only give her first name, was one of them. She is no great fan of the Islamists, but she likes the RCD, Ben Ali's now defunct party, even less.
"We have to cleanse our country of the former RCD members," Fatima said. "We're sick of these people. We want to be in peace — they should get the hell out of here."
There are other reminders of Ben Ali's government as well: a return to Internet censorship and police beatings of journalists.
Radio journalist Marwa Rekik was covering the protests when, she said, a policeman came to her and this happened.
"First he tried to grab my phone from me and my camera. He hit me on the head — I have five stitches on my head … so I have five stitches in my head," Rekik said.
Freedom of Expression
Now, she is resting at home. Her legs are covered in bruises she says she sustained from police batons in the same attack. Some 14 journalists say they were subject to police beatings during these protests, a bad indicator for Tunisia's transition to democracy, Rekik said.
"This kind of event confirms to me that we don't yet have our freedom of the press and of expression."
The government declined to comment for this story, but in a nationally televised interview Sunday night, Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi denied that former regime stalwarts may be planning a coup.
He called former interior minister Farhat Rajhi a liar, and said the beating of journalists was a police mistake, something journalist Rekik finds hard to believe.
"Fourteen journalists attacked were attacked, not just one. They could say they took me for a citizen but there were 14 of us and each of us said we were journalists," Rekik said.
The optimism and euphoria of January's revolution has given way to a distinct sense of paranoia and dread in Tunisia.
People here say the revolution is not over yet and that its goals are far from being assured. All they can do for the moment, says protestor Houdi Ben Aisha, is continue the fight.
"We aren't here for bread or for higher salaries," Aisha said. "We simply want our dignity. We must never, never, never let go."
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