By Aman Ali
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tunisians in the United States said on Saturday they were hopeful but cautious about the political change in the North African country after weeks of protest forced the country's longtime president into exile.
"I'm extremely happy," said Nour Chidas of Seattle. "I lived in Tunisia under a dictatorship for so many years.
"I wish I was there right now," Chidas said.
Anger over decades of repression and poverty boiled over in recent weeks, and violent protests forced longtime President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on Friday. Looting and rioting continued on Saturday as the country's politicians struggled to form an acceptable government.
Reuters spoke by telephone on Saturday with some of the small Tunisian community living in the United States, for their reaction.
At Chez Mannelle in Arlington, Virginia, which calls itself the first Tunisian restaurant in the United States, patrons said they were celebrating Ben Ali's ouster.
"Right now things are going in the right direction," Hakim Ben Alaya of Arlington said while eating lunch. "But we Tunisians won't be happy until Ben Ali and his family are tried for crimes against humanity."
Ben Alaya said he believes Ben Ali and his men are responsible for mass murders of many of the country's citizens over the years, prompting people to speak out against the government.
As Tunisia tries to plot its political future, protesters were looting shops and inmates were attempting jailbreaks, causing concern for Chidas and her husband Mounir Ghattas.
"Buildings have been burned, stores have been looted and people are having trouble getting access to food," Ghattas said. "Right now our families are okay, but there's still a lot of safety concerns."
The U.S. community of Tunisians is fairly small. French is the second language of Tunisia after Arabic and most Tunisians prefer to emigrate to French-speaking countries, Ghattas said.
Ali Khemili, an Albany, New York resident and head of the Organization of Tunisian Americans, said he was watching events unfold in the North African country with mixed emotions.
"You feel sad for the violence and the atrocity, but you also feel proud," he said. "My country has known nothing but authoritarian rule for the 53 years since independence."
Tunisia's educated youth, tired of corruption, unemployment and high prices, used technology and the Internet to mobilize and seize the moment.
"This is the equivalent of a revolution, a grass-roots uprising," he said.
Seattle resident Hassen Ayed said he was cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead for his native country.
"We Tunisians have a tendency to distrust people who have promised to bring change in the past. We trust the Tunisian people but not the politics," he said.
The media attention could prove valuable, he added.
"Tunisia is a small country not really known by the Americans," Ayed said. "This is a good opportunity for Americans to show support for democracy in the Arab world."
(Additional reporting by Eric Johnson; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)