Ben Ali jokes sweep Tunisia after 23 years of silence

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Friday, 28 January 2011 19:02 GMT

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali goes to buy new boots. As soon as he enters the shop, the salesman hands him a pair. "How did you know my size?" asks Ben Ali. The answer: "You've stomped on us for 23 years, how can we not?"

Two weeks ago, the only time Tunisia's dared mention Ben Ali's name, was to praise him. Now, he is the butt of jokes, of online caricatures and of songs even aired on state TV.

Ben Ali fled Tunisia on Jan. 14, after weeks of protests demanding freedom from police rule.

On Facebook and online, activists who had been muzzled for so long immediately posted caricatures of the ousted president, his wife and her family, who many Tunisians accuse of accumulating wealth at the expense of the people.

One shows Ben Ali as a donkey, led along by his wife Leila. Another depicts Ben Ali milking the cash cow that is Tunisia.

State television, long an instrument of Ben Ali propaganda, broadcast a rap song that mocked his wooden tones with a video clip that appears to compare him to Adolf Hitler.

The last page of the newspaper Sabah, or Morning, which was owned by Ben Ali's son-in-law, has been filled with caricatures of the former strongman. One shows Ben Ali about to drown, yelling "now I believe in democracy."

"This reflects people's need for revenge against the ex-president who did not allow them freedom of expression, even in cafes and in their homes," sociologist Mehdi Mabrouk told Reuters. "This mockery of Ben Ali shows that the Tunisians have got back their sense of humour."

In the capital, people no longer hide their opinions. You hear jokes being shared at cafes and on park benches.

One young man was telling his friends: "did you hear, major security forces are deployed near the Kaaba in anticipation of its theft by Ben Ali."

Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba. Tunisian authorities have pledged to reclaim any assets he took with him.

The new government has also vowed to protect all freedoms, including freedom of expression as the country moves towards its first democratic elections. (Editing by Lin Noueihed and Myra MacDonald)

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