In shell-shocked Tunisia, armed groups now patrol the streets

After popular protests forced the ouster of President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali on Friday, sections of Tunisia's capital, Tunis, are now being patrolled by small groups of young men.

Hedi Ben Salem/AP
People stand outside a looted supermarket in Tunis, Saturday. Armed young men have begun patrolling the streets of Tunis to prevent further looting and arson.

Young men armed with makeshift clubs patrolled their neighborhood streets in central Tunis Sunday, preparing to defend against looters or violent attackers after a day and a half of chaos that followed the departure of President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali Friday.

Carrying metal rods and wooden sticks, the youths barricaded roads and set up rogue checkpoints, stopping cars and questioning the occupants.

Mr. Ben Ali fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia Friday, swept from power by a month of popular protests against rising unemployment, government corruption, and lack of political freedom.

Residents of Tunis were taking neighborhood safety into their own hands, just as they did with their nation’s future over the past month.

“We forced the president to leave, but now we’re here to protect our homes, our shops, and our families from Ben Ali’s thugs,” said one of the young men, holding an iron bar in one hand and a Tunisian flag in the other. “He left, but his supporters are still here.”

President's loyalists organizing violence?

Many citizens accuse those loyal to the president of trying to sow chaos, and say they were responsible for some of the widespread violence and looting that followed the president’s departure.

Saturday, Tunis’s train station was burned down, inmates escaped from some prisons and some were killed when another was lit on fire, and unidentified gunmen shot at police at the Interior Ministry.

Calm had begun to return to Tunis Sunday, though it was broken by two gunbattles that erupted in central Tunis in late afternoon.

In one, the military was reported to be fighting members of Ben Ali’s security forces still loyal to him. The other shooting was outside the headquarters of a main opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party.

Third leader in 24 hours

Tunisia’s third leader in 24 hours, former speaker of the lower house of Parliament Fouad Mebazaa, took power Saturday, pledging to create a unity government and hold new elections within months.

The inclusion of the opposition parties, which were smothered during Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, will be a crucial test for how the political process will move forward.

Mr. Mebazaa, as well as Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who assumed the presidency briefly when Ben Ali fled, are both from the former president’s reviled regime, and Tunisians are unlikely to be satisfied unless the political status quo changes. The prime minister reportedly held talks with opposition leaders Sunday to discuss the new government, which he said he'd announce Monday.

There were some signs of such a change as the Army arrested two of Ben Ali’s former officials who had been involved in directing the police crackdowns against protesters. The government said Sunday that the former interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kassim, sacked by Ben Ali two days before he fled in a desperate attempt to pacify the masses, had been arrested, as well as chief of the presidential guard, Ali Seriati.

Police forces shot and killed dozens of people over the course of the weeks-long protests that began when an unemployed university graduate lit himself on fire last month in an act of desperate protest.

The police and the military

The Tunisians patrolling their neighborhood Sunday said that while they believe the police still supported Ben Ali, they trusted the military.

The men said they were in communication with Army officers nearby, who sanctioned their presence despite the nighttime curfew imposed on Tunis, and asked them to wear white shirts to distinguish themselves from troublemakers. The degree of calm returning to the capital is largely a result of the military’s stepping in to restore order.

“The military support the people,” says a woman who asked not to be named as she stood watching the youths, her son among them, stop a passing car at their makeshift checkpoint. “But the police – they are still loyal to Ben Ali and his people.”

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