Tunisia (AFP)
Police facing off against demonstrators in Tunis this week. Photo by AFP
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TUNIS - A large crowd gathered in Tunis' crowded airport terminal Tuesday afternoon around Moncef Marzouki, the opposition leader who had just returned from exile. Sufian Belhaj stood to the side, observing with a small smile. Only when the crowd began to disperse did he walk over and introduce himself to lawyer Radya Nasrawy, a veteran human rights activist. When he introduced himself, using the name he had been using over the past two months, she smiled broadly and kissed him on both cheeks. Online he is known as Hamadi Kaloucha, and his real identity had been secret until last week, when police officers in civilian clothing came to his home and arrested him.

"But now I have no reason to hide - they know who I am," he says, adding, "I was not tortured" during the three days in detention. "Actually, I was treated quite well. I guess they understood that their show was almost over."

He was released Sunday, the day after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

Belhaj is 28. He studied political science in Brussels, and returned to Tunisia a year ago. Like many other educated middle-class members of his generation, he was unable to find work. He spends much of his time on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Two months ago, he says, when WikiLeaks published the U.S. State Department documents, "I decided to translate into Arabic and French the documents about Tunisia. Of course, the citizens of Tunisia already knew these things, but this made it official."

American diplomats had gone into great detail and used colorful language to describe the "quasi-mafia" created by Ben Ali and the relatives of his wife, Leila Trabelsi.

"Whether it's cash, services, land, property - or, yes, even your yacht - President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants," an American diplomat informed Washington.

Belhaj translated it all. "I knew the media here, which is under government control, would not publish it in any form, nor would the Arab press. Facebook was the way to sidestep censorship."

He posted the translations on a Facebook page via an account he opened under the name Hamadi Kaloucha. Within a week he had 170,000 readers. It took the authorities a month to delete the page, but by then hundreds of bloggers and Internet users in Tunisia, along with Tunisians living abroad and people from other Arab countries, had copied and reposted the translations.

"It gave frustrated people information that appeared to be reliable, in place of the whispered rumors," Belhaj explains.

He doesn't know if Mohamed Bouazizi - the 26-year-old university graduate who immolated himself to protest the police's refusal to allow him even to sell vegetables in the market, and whose death triggered the national uprising - had read his translation.

"WikiLeaks, Twitter and Facebook were the fuel for the revolution," he says. "Bouazizi was the spark that ignited it all."

"After they arrested him without telling me where they were taking him," says Belhaj's wife, Ayish, who is 25, "I went on Facebook and recruited people to spread his story. The authorities could not ignore that."

Belhaj knows that Tunisia is still far from the democracy the thousands of demonstrators are demanding, but he feels he is part of a historic process: "Until now Tunisians had one historic date, 1956, when we received independence and Habib Bourguiba established the state. Now we have a new date - 2011."

An estimated more than 20 percent of Tunisia's inhabitants use Facebook. Fatma Marwadi-Sudi, 53, a French teacher at a Tunis high school, says, "Since the demonstrations started I have been on the computer a few hours every day, looking for material, blogs, announcements and video clips from demonstrations, and I have forwarded them to others."

Tunisians do not trust the media, which is controlled by the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party. "Television here did not show the demonstrations," Marwadi-Sudi says. "Everything we knew we got online. Our inspiration came from the demonstrations last year in Iran after the elections there."

She adds, "It's hard for me to interest the students in this, because they are used to the situation. One reason I learned to use the Internet was to interest them in what is happening around us. We also did a few more things on Twitter and Facebook: We published names of activists who were arrested and we provided the phone numbers of human rights organizations, lawyers and physicians who were ready to help."

What opposition?

For years there was a dissonance in Tunisia between the near-total political repression, achieved largely through the government's full control of the media, and the everyday life of a very secular society with full equality for women, a high level of education, a higher standard of living than other African countries and close ties with Western countries, particularly France.

"I was allowed to teach the French Revolution and talk about democracy and freedom," Marwadi-Sudi notes, "but I was prohibited from saying anything about what was happening here in the country."

In fact, hardly any young women wear veils or head coverings on the streets of Tunis. One morning, a group of young women wearing scarves and long coats were seen walking down the main avenue, but they turned out to be tourists from France. The women of Tunis prefer tight jeans and short leather jackets. There are some young people who have turned to Islam, but they are on their own for now.

"I want my fiancee to cover her head after we are married," says Ibrahim Chouchan, who finished a degree in economics a year ago but has been able to find work only as a salesman at a cell-phone company booth. "That is the right thing for a Muslim woman. But she refuses - there is very harsh discrimination here against women who cover their heads. If a student covers her head she cannot attend lectures or take exams, and afterward she cannot find a job. I do not tell anyone that I am an Islamist and I am not active in any way, because I would be arrested immediately. Maybe now that Ben Ali was kicked out things will change."

There have been two levels of political opposition in Tunisia: The "legal" parties were allowed to exist amid severe restrictions, and the "illegal" parties had their leaders arrested and exiled. The representatives of the legal opposition agreed to join the provisional government this week, thereby legitimizing Ben Ali's party, even after he fled in disgrace.

The illegal opposition seems not to actually exist. Even at the airport reception for Moncef Marzouki, the leader of Congress for the Republic, no one identified himself as a member of that party. Marzouki, 65, had announced that he was flying in from Paris and that he intends to run for president when free elections are declared, but no one has a clue as to when or how such a vote will be held. He currently has no activists or party infrastructure.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Hizb al-Nahda, Tunisia's largest Islamist party, has been in exile for 22 years. After Ben Ali fled, Ghannouchi announced from his home in Britain his plan to return.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi (no relation ) promised on Monday that all political prisoners would be released, but when a reporter asked whether Islamist exiles could return, he replied "First the courts must repeal their life sentences." The ruling party was established on the basis of the secular principles of Habib Bourguiba.

On Wednesday morning, black-clad commandos entered the lobby of the Africa Hotel on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. They looked nothing like the policemen and soldiers manning checkpoints outside, with faded uniforms and outmoded French rifles. The commandos had advanced American assault rifles; one even carried a sniper's rifle in a special case on his back. The deputy manager escorted them to the 22nd floor. There, atop the highest building in the city, they took up positions. Hotel guests were denied access to the floor.

Popular army

The Tunisian army is relatively small, and unlike those of many other African and Arab countries, it has never tried to seize power here. Salim Jabali, an engineer in his forties who was watching the demonstrations from the side, said, "It will be very hard for the country to shift to democracy. We think the army should control things in the meantime."

The army is very popular here. People place flowers on tanks in the streets and photograph their children with them. High-ranking officers spread a rumor that they had violated an order by Ben Ali to open fire on demonstrators. The demonstrators cheer and applaud whenever an army helicopter passes over them. When violent clashes break out between police and demonstrators, the soldiers and officers back off.

There is a curfew at night, punctuated by occasional gunfire; the defense ministry still refuses to say who is shooting. There are rumors that loyalists of the old regime are trying to undermine law and order. Others believe it is the army that is firing, in order to justify its deployment in the city.

In recent years, the Tunisian armed forces have cooperated in the American war against Al-Qaida. The government here is very worried about extreme Islam's advance in Africa. Washington viewed the Tunisian regime, with its strict secular principles dating from the Bourguiba period, as a faithful ally. As part of that alliance, the Americans were ready to ignore the leadership's corruption and suppression of civil rights.

In any event, no one will be surprised if one morning it turns out that the army has seized power. The thousands who packed the country's streets this week with a demand for true democracy will not get their wish, but many others in Tunis - and in Washington - will breathe a sigh of relief.