According to official records, 78 people have died, though the United Nations says as many as 100 may have been killed during police crack-downs on protestors. After its first cabinet meeting, the new government this week issued a statement that previously banned political groups will now be recognised and there will be an amnesty for political prisoners. Ahmed Ibrahim, the Higher Education Minister, said “everybody will be part of this amnesty....we will recognise all the political movements.”
Families have been gathering outside prisons, waiting for the release of those jailed for political reasons during the 23-year rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who has now fled the country. One father, Mohammed Khaled Khmeira, simply said “we are waiting for the release of our sons”. So far, only a few have been freed, though the release of 1,800 prisoners has been promised. One mother anxiously waiting for news of her son was Balti Mabrouka, who spoke of widespread mistreatment of those incarcerated. “I don’t know if my son is alive or dead,” she said, bemoaning the little information she has of her son’s situation.
But in general, most Tunisians express their joy at what is happening around them, grateful an atmosphere of fear has lifted in their country. Whereas only a week ago, they would have faced arrest or beatings for protesting, now crowds gather and chant with impunity in the streets. While the new government met, peaceful demonstrations were being held about the removal of any old members. And another group of several hundred gathered outside the state-owned Tunisian Transport to demand the resignation of senior company officials.
One of the first young people to talk openly about the change in her country was Asma Ghibri, who spoke to the BBC World Service earlier this week. The 23-year old, who is studying at Manouba University in Tunis, said “I did not believe this change could happen”. Like many young people in Tunisia, Asma saw as a “wake-up call” the action of Sidi Bouzid, who set fire to himself in December. Amsa described how the protests which followed were “driven by young people” dissatisfied with their lives. Now, Asma says “I am not afraid anymore...I am free.”
Despite ongoing peaceful protests, life in the capital is returning to normal. Following the three days of mourning, the government has therefore called on all schools and universities to reopen from Monday. Sporting and other national events are also expected to resume in the near future. The economy will certainly have been hard hit by all the uncertainty, with one minister expecting a significant loss to gross domestic product and a slowdown in the growth rate. With high unemployment, the creation of jobs will be one of the first priorities of any new government. But for now, many Tunisians are overjoyed about their new-found freedom. Hmedi Ben Romdhane, the international editor of ‘La Presse’ newspaper, says that changes over the last week have been “so huge and rapid”, life is transformed and people keep asking themselves “are we dreaming?”