Tunisians in the Washington, D.C., area are cautiously watching the dramatic events in their country, where unemployment-related protests drove long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia. While they are thousands of miles away, they have strong opinions about developments there.
"We worry about the safety of the people back home," said Sami Boudriga, an Information Technology manager in Fairfax, Virginia. "My friends and family in Tunis told me that corrupt and authoritarian Ben Ali loyalists were trying to spread chaos and cause damage to the country in order to discredit the uprising and mar [the] celebration of Ben Ali's fall."
"The army set up a hotline for residents to call if they see any armed rental cars. In some towns, the army chased and captured some of them," he said.
Army tanks and police vehicles are patrolling the debris-littered streets following reports of gunfire Saturday night.
Another young Tunisian American, who identified herself as Fatima, said she is extremely happy that President Ben Ali's regime has fallen. "Almost all Tunisians here in Washington, Virginia and Maryland are overjoyed because the big liars are now gone," she said. "They have been lying to us for the past 23 years of dictatorship and oppression [of] my people."
In this photo released 28 Dec 2010 by the Tunisian President's office, Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 2nd left, visits Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man who set himself on fire after police confiscated fruit and vegetables he sold without a perm
"It's Bouazizi who ousted authoritarian, iron-fisted Ben Ali," Fatima said.
She was referring to university graduate and unemployed 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi who sold produce from a cart in his rural town of Sidi Bouzid to make ends meet. When authorities last December confiscated his cart on the grounds that he was operating without a license, he drenched himself in gasoline and set himself on fire outside a governor’s office.
His self-immolation triggered a wave of protests over price hikes and unemployment, the worst unrest since General Ben Ali took power in 1987.
But many Tunisian Americans fear that the so-called "Jasmine Revolution" will be stolen by what they call "fake opposition" leaders who they say sat in the parliament and rubber-stamped what Mr. Ben Ali did for 23 years.
"The real opposition is either in jail or in exile, like Rachid Ghannouchi of Ennahdha Islamic movement," Boudriga said. "We, Tunisian Americans, appeal to the country's new Interim President Fouad Mebazza to make a quick decision to free all political prisoners, jailed opposition leaders and allow other leaders in exile to return home."
Many are cautious about Tunisia's future. They feel that their country is now in limbo.
"Ben Ali's old guards are still in Tunis," Boudriga said. "If they do not remove the guilty party, the ruling RCD party, there [will] be no democracy in Tunisia. This party should be disbanded and dismantled. It was never from the people or for the people," he said.
Many Tunisians and Arabs in the Washington area hope the "Jasmine Revolution" will spread to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East Middle East putting an end to what they call systemic corruption and political repression in many of the region’s countries.