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 started by Ben Ali's former Praetorian guards, the presidential protection force, aided by members of the Mukhabarat, the secret police and assorted militia.
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 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.
Ali Seriati, who was the head of the presidential guard, is said to have handed himself over because he feared assassination. He will appear in court charged with "creating divisions among the people, threatening national security, and provoking armed violence".
Chronicling what is taking place is proving dangerous. The Tunisian media are enjoying a burst of fearlessness and freedom after years of censorship but members of the international media have, at times, faced intimidation and violence from both sides.
Yesterday morning, Lucas Dolega, a 32-year-old French-German photojournalist was reported by police to have died from head injuries received when hit by a tear-gas grenade during a riot. Two of his colleagues claimed a policeman came to within five feet of Mr Dolega and aimed before pulling the trigger. His family later issued a statement saying that while he was in a critical condition, he was still alive.
There are tensions too between the army and the police. Many believe the police were too subservient to Ben Ali, himself a policeman trained in the US. Areas where the police were chased out have welcomed the soldiers. Sahar Ben Younes, a 20-year-old student who took part in the demonstrations, cooked, along with her friends, meals for the soldiers.
"We like them, we think they are fair and neutral," she said. "The police were always brutal, on behalf of Ben Ali and when we took part in things like the protests for the Palestinians. They were very quick to attack and use tear gas."
None of the law agencies, however, was doing anything to stop the looting, which continued yesterday to target the properties of relatives and cronies of the presidential family.
An opulent villa belonging to Belhassan Trabelsi, another nephew of Leila Trabelsi's, at La Marsa, near Carthage was being systematically stripped. On the arched doorway to the property, the millionaire businessman had inscribed: "This home is a gift to me from Allah."
Mohammed Jawad Qasi, a 33-year-old carpenter, smiled. "And now Allah has taken it away from him," he said. "If I had tried to enter here before, his men would have chased me away like a dog. I could not believe what I saw inside, the furniture, the swimming pool. The bastard had been living like he was our lord while the poor people were starving."
At a nearby house belonging to Moise Ben Ali, a nephew of the former president, possessions were thrown into the carved swimming pool. A Jeep sat burned out under a car porch. The BMWs, Porsches and Humvees which lined the driveway were among the first things to be "liberated".
Back in central Tunis, police showed off something else foreign: two Swedish passports recovered from gunmen who started the firefight. They appeared to be of Arab or North African origin. What were they doing here? "They are here to cause trouble, they are here to fight," said Lieutenant Mohammed Raida. "They know there are big problems here, they can smell blood."Reuse content