TUNIS, Tunisia — The fishmonger at the market cries, "Long live Tunisia!", his smile as big as the fish he's slicing. Middle-aged women hold sleep-overs to talk politics deep into the night. Euphoric Tunisians have a chance to do what was undreamable three weeks ago: Build a democracy from the ground up.
But will they?
It is clear what this tiny Arab nation of 11 million has started: A revolution against longtime authoritarian regimes that has already spread to the powerful regional giant, Egypt, and to the impoverished but well-armed Yemen. What is not clear is where Tunisia's experiment will end.
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The ruling party of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still operates from the shadows, its tentacles wrapped around every aspect of life. Islamists are clamoring for a share of the pie in a country that has known only one-man rule since its founding in 1956. And a shaky interim government — the second in less than two weeks — must keep Tunisia stable until elections in about six months.
All this as the economy tanks.
"There are 500 scenarios. There are 1,000 plots," said Mhadheb Ouled Taieb Zaafouri, a retired university professor of Mediterranean civilization. "In Tunisia, there is something new every hour."
The most urgent need, experts say, is to avoid chaos by recharging the economy. The vital tourism industry that keeps this small North African country on the map has collapsed overnight, and tourists were evacuated by the thousands. The army stands guard around luxury resorts turned into ghost towns.
"The country is paralyzed now," says Najib Lairini, an Arab world specialist at the University of Montreal. "This can't continue."
Unlike its much larger oil- and gas-rich neighbors, Algeria and Libya, Tunisia has no natural resources and relies heavily on its charm for survival. Tunisia's government bond ratings now stand at one notch above "junk," downgraded by Moody's Investor Services and Standard & Poor's because of political instability. Youth unemployment is soaring, and food prices are rising.
Until now, Tunisia stood as a beacon of stability in the volatile Mediterranean basin, a modern, solid ally of the West and, at least from afar, a sliver of prosperity thriving in the jasmine-scented sun. The former French colony with a burgeoning middle class is a paradox in the region: A Muslim country where bankers in suits suck on chicha pipes, and where women — mostly without headscarves and almost unanimously without face veils — enjoy many of the same rights as their Western counterparts, including abortion.
But the flimsiness of Tunisia's postcard image was exposed with the month-long deadly uprising that ended with the 74-year-old Ben Ali's flight into exile in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. The reports of systematic repression, torture of political prisoners, massive corruption and grinding poverty were revealed to a world that had long turned a blind eye.
Ben Ali may now be in Saudi Arabia, but he is far from gone. His party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, known as the RCD, is still the terror of many dreaming of a new Tunisia. Over the years, the party seeped into all sectors of public life, and its imprint cannot quickly be scrubbed away.
Lairini, the Arab world expert, says that die-hard RCD loyalists are dispersed, disorganized and themselves fearing reprisals. The party's executive bureau dissolved itself in a bid to curry favor with the people, and politicians are turning in their cards.
"It was a very personalized power structure around the president," Lairini said. "As soon as the boss left, the organization was decapitated. There is no one to prepare a Plan B or Plan C."
But after so many years of being tapped by phone and having hundreds of Web sites blocked, many Tunisians do not believe the party will just go away.
"The RCD is rebuilding itself in back rooms," said Habib Jerjer, head of the Regional Union of Tunis Workers, echoing the visions of many. "Their intelligence service is still in place and more active than ever."Story: Leading Tunisian Islamist returns from exile
Some 33 members of the ex-president's family have been taken into custody, along with the Senate president. Several top advisers have been placed under house arrest. Tunisia has issued an arrest warrant, diffused by Interpol, for Ben Ali and six family members.
But no attempt has yet been made to purge the powerful hierarchy of the omnipresent police force.
The sinister-looking Interior Ministry, in charge of police who carried out repressive policies, was at the heart of Ben Ali's regime. It was the police, in a sense, who set off the uprising in December, when they confiscated the fruits and vegetables an educated young man was selling and he set himself on fire.
The delicate question of what to do with the police has been made tougher by their role in daily crowd and riot control. The police themselves are divided, with some fighting for better conditions, among them a union.
If fear of the police is embedded in them, Tunisians are also divided over whether Islamists, an illegal movement under Ben Ali like so many others, should be given permission to enter politics. Experts say Ben Ali used a fear of Islamists to seduce Western allies keen for a bulwark against terrorism in a volatile region, and win their blessing despite widespread repression.
The Ennahdha, or Renaissance party — branded an Islamic terrorist group by Ben Ali but considered moderate by scholars — has moved quickly to carve out a place on the political scene, taking part in some demonstrations and meeting at one point with the prime minister. Ennahdha awaits the imminent return of its many exiled members, including leader Rachid Ghanouchi, living for nearly two decades in London.
"Tunisia needs all its children. Our priority is democratic freedom," said Ajmi Lourimi, a founding member who spent more than 17 years in prison.
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In its second statement addressed to Tunisians, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb praised the uprising that deposed Ben Ali but warned that the "system of infidelity and tyranny" won't die unless a government based on Islamic law is installed, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist organizations.
No one is more aware of the stakes than the current caretaker government, forced to shed key ministers last week, 10 days after it was formed, in a major concession to angry crowds denouncing Cabinet heavyweights as lackeys of the former ruling party. In a quick political flip-turn, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, Ben Ali's prime minister for the past decade, told the citizenry they must be calm to ensure they keep their "rendezvous with history."
"Today we have an unprecedented chance. Exceptional," said 56-year-old housewife Saida Ferjani. "But in a year ... anything can happen."
Tunisia has no history of democracy to draw on. The nation's modern-day founder, Habib Bourguiba, pointed Tunisia westward, making it a leader of women's rights in the Arab world and seeding a culture of modernity — while maintaining tight controls and leading a fierce crackdown on Islamists. Bourguiba famously once went on television during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan suggesting citizens should eat.
Ben Ali, a former interior minister, deposed Bourguiba in a palace coup in 1987, saying the father of Tunisia was senile. He announced a new era, calling it "The Change." But after two years, corruption took firm hold, and growing repression and reports of torture marked his reign.
However, Tunisia has one great advantage against history: Its youth. About 52 percent of its population is less than 22 years old, and is quickly burying a contaminated past that it did not live through.
As it teeters on the cusp of change, Tunisia is going for broke. It's too late to pull back, and for those committed to transforming a dictatorship into a democracy, the risks are worth it.
"For me this is a birth. Tunisia is giving birth," said Souha Naija, a doctor at Charles Nicole Hospital. "There is blood, there is pain. But after, there is birth."
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