Waiting for Democracy in Tunisia

TUNIS - A thousand demonstrators march down Habib Bourguiba Boulevard, the main street of Tunisia's capital. A tank stands in Independence Square with its gun aimed at them, a hulk of steel defining the boundaries of the North African nation's embryonic democracy. Will this be the image that defines the Tunisian revolution in the world's mind?

Dozens of policemen, armed with plastic shields, automatic weapons and tear gas grenades, make no move to stop the demonstrators. But 20 meters from the tank, they stop of their own accord, refusing to cross the last street separating them from the symbol of military might.

It is clear that they dare not approach the tank. The idea of climbing on top of it, as the Russians did in Moscow in 1991, or trying to block it with their bodies, as the Chinese did in Tiananmen Square in 1989, does not seem to enter their minds.

For a moment, though, the psychological barrier looks like it's about to fall. The crowd inches forward; several demonstrators come within a few meters of the tank.

But at the last minute, they stop. Some walk around the tank; others surround an elderly sergeant, singing "Vive la revolution, vive la militaire." They were willing to risk their lives against the security forces' rifles, but the army remains of supreme value.

The Tunisians do not yet know what will replace the regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They shout "democracy" and "freedom," but when asked what kind of government they want, every Tunisian seems to have a different answer. "Arab nationalism," "African democracy," "modern Islam" are some of the replies. One protester would like the army to seize power. Among the country's democrats, some want "the French system," others "an American-style constitution"; one even said he wants "democracy like in Holland."

But not everyone is joining the demonstration. A roughly equal number of people stand on the sidewalk and watch. They are generally better dressed than the protesters.

At first, the Tunisian security forces seem confused, unwilling to wield their batons or shoot tear gas. Who do they serve now?

But the crowd's reluctance to approach the tank restores their confidence. "A little gas and they'll disperse," one police officer says dismissively.

As the demonstration changes direction, hurrying toward the Interior Ministry, the police close ranks and pull out their batons. Shots are heard and dozens of smoke grenades arelaunched, filling the boulevard with tear gas. In seconds, the crowd flees into nearby alleys. A few are caught and beaten by policemen.

The message is clear: The president has fled, a new government that includes the opposition parties is forming. But democracy has yet to burst forth on the streets of Tunisia.