Among France's Tunisians, elation and worry

France hosts Tunisia's largest expatriate community. Having long lived in political silence, Tunisians here are glued to Arabic TV and debating if greater democracy or regional strife will unfold.

Claude Paris/AP
Demonstrators holds a placard reading 'Ben Ali assassin, France accomplice,' during a demonstration in solidarity with Tunisia, in Marseille, southern France , on Jan. 15.

In France, Tunisia's largest expatriate community is experiencing a new reality: elation. Having long lived in political silence, fearing for family back home, Tunisians here are glued to Arabic TV and Facebook, phoning home, and sharing poetry and music. But they're dogged by doubt over whether the revolution marks a fall of the Berlin Wall for the Arab world, or the start of regional strife.

To prominent Tunisians like Moncef Cheikh-Rouhou, the word “democracy” has returned to the Middle East lexicon not as a luxury reserved for prosperous nations, but as simple human desire. To him, it is a "Berlin Wall" moment.

“Democracy isn’t only a consequence of economic growth, or we would see a stronger push in China," says Mr. Cheikh-Rouhou, who has been mentioned as a possible finance minister in a new Tunisian government. "More importantly, our revolution counters notions in Washington that democracy can’t come from Arab grassroots but must come from the insertion of foreign troops using force against tyrannical leaders.”

Mr. Cheikh-Rouhou has lived in exile here since leaving Tunis in the dark of night after a clash with ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He helped found the Arab Circle of Economists and will chair a special Tunisia meeting at the Davos economic forum tomorrow on corruption’s effect on development. He charges that Mr. Ben Ali, who now has an international warrant out for his arrest, owes $5 billion to his country.

Cheikh-Rouhou says that he felt change coming, but was surprised by the revolt. Tunisia’s stress on education was “a bomb planted by [former president] Bourguiba that would one day explode," he notes. "But I didn’t think it would happen like this.”

While Ben Ali repressed Tunisia by presenting the West with a choice between himself and Osama bin Laden, the real threat came from new channels of communication, Cheikh-Rouhou says. “The revolution of the jasmine is the first in the Arab world where people changed things. Only later the Army stepped in to protect people. It wasn’t a military coup. The energy was popular. I don’t think we can underestimate the effect social media had with an educated population.”

Of the 1.1 million Tunisians living overseas, 600,000 are in France. They are here for jobs. For them, the Ben Ali regime was a state of nature that wasn’t going to change. It got passive if not always enthusiastic support. No one wanted to be fingered by Tunisian secret police networks. Plus, Ben Ali allowed generous customs. Tunisians brought back cars, suitcases, and crates of European bounty, and enjoyed a largely “hands off” policy by police, says Wissem, a Tunisian living here with his French girlfriend.

“After 23 years of dictatorship, to suddenly find him gone, your mind goes a little blank," he says. "I don’t know where I ought to be. I just want to be free. The worst is behind.”

The leadership void is stunning to many. “I can’t see who is in charge anymore,” says Adel, who is employed at a Tunisian schwarma (sandwich) joint.

Formal expatriate opposition was small. This week its leader, Moncef Marzouki, returned to run for president. Mostly it has included student activists and “intellectuals without a passport,” as the Tunisian director of French Radio Soliel, Majid Daboussi, puts it. Tunisians needed to keep channels open back home. Some used French tourists to smuggle in opposition literature.

But this was private, not organized. “Except for a small minority, people weren’t political. After Ben Ali took over [23 years ago], people retreated into their own lives, stuck to family and friends,” says Moncef ben Othman, a retired professor. "But I think we are waking up to the larger world. A couple days ago a friend called to ask me, 'Who is Tom Friedman?'"

Opposition grew only recently. Worsening rights abuses by Ben Ali were matched by growing corruption that benefitted his family. On multilingual websites like Tunisnews, expats read about billions socked away by Ben Ali’s family, especially by his new wife. Ben Ali professed the importance of human rights, even as dissent was crushed.

An “Arab radio” of word-of-mouth spread quickly. But European Union authorities did not pay attention (as French president Nicolas Sarkozy this week admitted). Longstanding French policy kept a status quo even as Ben Ali won elections by figures of 90 percent.

“Ben Ali presented himself as the only believable option to chaos and Islam, and the West believed him,” says Cheikh-Rouhou.

Mr. Daboussi, the radio director, warns that, “The EU and the US have the only solution for us. Libya and Qaddafi, Algeria and Egypt, cannot accept a democratic revolution. We now have hostile neighbors. We need help from the West to ensure we don’t sink.”

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