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Tunisians celebrate their freedom

In triumph, nation marks anniversary of the uprising

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Tunisians marked the year since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, an event that helped spark the Arab Spring. The country has since held its freest elections ever.

TUNIS - Masses of Tunisians marched in peaceful triumph yesterday to mark the one-year anniversary of the revolution that ended the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked uprisings around the Arab world.

Tunisia greeted the anniversary with prudent optimism, amid worries about high unemployment that cast a shadow over their pride at transforming the country.

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Now a human rights activist is president, and a moderate Islamist jailed for years by the old regime is prime minister at the head of a diverse coalition, after the freest elections in Tunisia’s history.

Tunisia’s uprising began on Dec. 17, 2010, when a desperate fruit vendor set himself on fire, unleashing pent-up anger and frustration among his compatriots, who staged protests that spread nationwide.

Within a month, longtime president Ben Ali was forced out of power, and he fled to Saudi Arabia.

Boisterous marches yesterday reflected the country’s new atmosphere. Islamists shouted “Allahu Akbar’’ (“God is Great’’). Alongside them were leftists and nationalists celebrating freedom and mourning the more than 200 people killed in the monthlong uprising.

Leading Arab dignitaries joined Tunisia’s leaders for anniversary ceremonies. They included Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika - who faced down protests in his own country last year; the head of Libya’s interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who helped lead opposition to Moammar Gadhafi; and the emir of Qatar.

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“The democratic process that has begun is now irreversible, after the dark period’’ of the past, president and former exiled activist Moncef Marzouki said.

Abdel-Jalil called the Tunisian revolution “a determining factor for the success of the uprising’’ in Libya.

To mark the anniversary, the new leadership pardoned 9,000 convicts and converted the sentences of more than 100 prisoners from the death penalty to life in prison, the state news agency TAP reported.

As the country that started the Arab Spring, Tunisia appears to be the farthest along in its transformation. But political analysts warn that further gains will not be easy or painless.

Heykel Mahfoudh, a law professor and adviser to the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, said that Tunisia is entering its second post-Ben Ali year “in a paradoxically necessary phase of turbulence.’’

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