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Tunisia replaces repressive regime with total anarchy

By Kim Sengupta in Tunis

Gunshots began to pour out from a window, followed by returning fire from below.

A helicopter gunship came swooping down from above and muffled explosions followed. The few people who had ventured out scurried for cover in doorways or cowered behind cars.

This was a sunny Sunday afternoon in a capital city on the jagged edge of anarchy.

Tunisia appears to be replacing 23 years of authoritarian and repressive rule with a future of uncertainty and violence.

The flight of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali seems to have done little to salve the wounds of a fractured society, with bitter enemies determined on settling scores.

The dictator may have gone, but no-one is really in charge. The firefight, near his former palace, was said to have been started by Ben Ali's former Praetorian guards, the presidential protection force, aided by members of the Mukhabarat, the secret police.

Meanwhile, security forces and the mob battle for the streets at night and, increasingly, openly during the day. The erosion of civil order is evident in the myriad of checkpoints set up on largely empty thoroughfares.

Some are manned by the army and police, others by unidentified men in jeans and leather jackets carrying Kalashnikovs. In the past two days, youthful vigilantes have appeared, some in their early teens, carrying wooden sticks, stopping cars and sometime carrying out “arrests” within yards of official posts.

None of this has stopped the looting and burning of homes, offices and public buildings: Tunis's main rail station was ransacked and set alight by a crowd which had been stopped from marching into an affluent area.

Most of those who had cause to fear the collapse of the old order had followed Ben Ali out of the country. Not all have received the honoured welcome he got in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom with a tradition of hosting Muslim leaders falling on hard times, such as Uganda's Idi Amin. Some members of the Ben Ali family arrived at Disneyland, Paris, asking for asylum while others moved their cash, cars and servants to Dubai.

But some have failed to get away and paid the price.

Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of Leila — the president's wife accused of enriching herself and her family from the public coffers — died yesterday after a group tracked him down and repeatedly stabbed him.

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