- - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia | Before starting to build the foundations of a new republic, Tunisians first rapidly demolished reminders of the old one. First to go were all pictures of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali lingering in offices, on billboards and on lampposts.

Buildings with purple facades or violet stenciling on them in honor of the former leader’s favorite color were repainted - white.

And the number 7 - Mr. Ben Ali’s lucky number - was removed from places such as the “Tele 7” television network and the Avenue du 7 Novembre.

More than two months after the popular uprising toppled Mr. Ben Ali, Tunisians say the revolution has galvanized the entire country, restoring their dignity and hope for a better future.

But they also are learning that getting rid of a dictator and his physical traces was the easy part.

A demonstrator gets emotional during a recent protest in downtown Tunis. Tunisians in this tiny country of 10.5 million people cherish their new freedom. But the country's high unemployment and deeply entrenched corruption could take years to remedy. (Associated Press)
A demonstrator gets emotional during a recent protest in downtown Tunis. Tunisians ... more >

“For the first time in so many years, we can look at the West in the eyes and feel like equals,” said Fares Mabrouk, founder of the Arab Policy Institute, a new think tank based in Tunis that supports democratic change in the Middle East. “[Our problems now] are hard to address, hard to resolve.”

Tunisians face the challenge of building a democracy, now that the physical manifestations of a 23-year dictatorship have been erased and the brutal repression of human rights activists and all political opposition is over.

“During the first stage, everyone was against the dictator, but once they are gone, you have the different groups fighting not just about power but what system they want,” said Duke University political science professor Bruce Jentleson, who until recently served as a senior adviser to the State Department’s policy planning director.

“But building institutions for a democracy is going to take a long time. It’s not going to be a straight line - there are going to be ups and downs, twists and turns.”

That has started. Mostly nonviolent protests throughout the month of February in Tunis resulted in the resignation of interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who had served under Mr. Ben Ali for decades, as well as other officials.

The Tunisian interim Cabinet, meanwhile, lifted the ban on political parties, including the Islamist party Ennahdha. The courts formally dissolved the former ruling party, the Democratic Constitution Rally (RCD) on March 9, on the grounds of corruption.

Now, new parties seem to pop up every day. No one seems to know how many there are exactly, but the government puts the number at more than 50.

“I wasn’t really joking when I said, ‘Would you like my couch for your political party to hold your meetings?’ ” said Hatem Bourial, a Tunisian commentator and author. “I mean these days, I could create a political party in a week if I wanted to.”

Democracy-building is happening as the country is dealing with severe economic issues. In late January, credit-rating agency Fitch cut its 2011 growth forecast for Tunisia from 5 percent to 2 percent.

Tourism, which makes up almost 7 percent of the country’s GDP and employs hundreds of thousands of Tunisians, saw a dramatic fall in visitors.

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