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A civilised revolution

Lana Asfour reports from Tunis, the city where it all began.

For more than two weeks after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's repressive 23-year regime was toppled and replaced by an interim government in mid-January, protests continued on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis and in front of the government offices in the Kasbah, where the ministry of finance had been renamed - using a spray can - the "ministry of thieves". Demonstrators were calling for the remaining members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), Ben Ali's political party, to leave the government.

One group had walked all the way from Sidi Bouzid, the home town of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose suicide had sparked the revolution. The protests succeeded and almost all of the old RCD members were removed.

Now, discussions have shifted to what Tunisia will look like after the elections, expected to be held in a few months' time. Some want the army's chief of staff, General Rachid Ammar, to play a role: when Ben Ali ordered the army to shoot at the protesters, Ammar chose to disobey and took the people's side.

I asked Selmi Taoufik, a young man who works in France, whom he wanted to see in power and he voiced an opinion that I often come across: "I don't know yet. I have to see what the person is like first, then I'll decide."

Most Tunisians do not like religious conservatism and many say that they are worried about an Islamist resurgence. Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist al-Nahda party, outlawed under Ben Ali, has returned to Tunis after more than 20 years in exile. He was welcomed by several thousand supporters at the airport, though a few came to protest against him.

Whatever the political landscape will look like in six months, it is clear that the hard work is just beginning. Tunisia has to address institutional corruption and learn how to exercise democracy in all areas of life. Gangs have been frightening people on the streets and in schools - most likely unemployed youths paid by old regime members to spread chaos in the nascent democracy. Happily, the new interior minister is overhauling the security services.

Back on the tree-lined Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the mood is exuberant. People are proud of what they have achieved and delighted to be able to speak freely without threat of arrest and torture. Some are here to sit on café terraces or to shop, but almost everyone you meet is indulging in open debate.

Strangers spontaneously group and discuss the interim government, what it should do and how the democratic process should unfold. Young and old - men and women - stand together and argue.

What is reassuring about this revolution is that there is little desire for vengeance against those who had ties to the RCD. Tunisia, which can boast a highly educated population and equal rights for women, has conducted a very civilised revolution.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt