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Dispatches from Tunisia

Amanda Sebestyen reports from a solidarity visit to Tunisia organised through the World Social Forum

May 23, 2011
5 min read

The world’s media went strangely silent about Tunisia after that small country began the Arab Spring. We weren’t able to follow the waves of intelligent mass action that not only evicted the dictator Ben Ali in January after 23 years in power, but then continued through the next two months to dismantle many of the old structures of dictatorship. It was a countrywide training in creative self-organisation, with a new openness which made it vividly exciting to visit.

In May the old regime started to strike back. A popular minister Farhat Rajhi, sacked from the Interior Ministry for refusing to shut down Facebook campaigners, raised the prospect of a coup plot by the old dictator’s party to take over the country after July’s elections. In the demonstrations that have followed, protestors have been fiercely beaten and journalists – male and female –  singled out for particularly disabling attacks. It emerged that a censorship law had been secretly rushed through by the interim government; unbelievably, sites have started to be shut down in the birthplace of revolutions which use the internet to such stunning effect.

But once people have started to take control of their lives they are not going to lose that vision. Not all are involved in street confrontations any more: they see a range of strategies for going forwards. Below are some of the voices of the Tunisian revolution. Independent, skilful, courageous, well-organised, far-sighted, generous voices which are recognisably voices of the new social movements worldwide.

A solidarity trip to ‘the land of free people’

We stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere. High on a hill was a message in Arabic spelled out in white stones: ‘Welcome to Regueb, the land of free people’. Around the next corner we came to Regueb itself, a town of only 8,000 and the most fully mobilised, creative political space I have ever experienced.

Its tiny hall was filled with the spirit of early trade unionism. You could imagine Chartists and Jacobins speaking like this, as the speakers launched poetic internationalist visions under the linked-hands red-crescent logo of the UGTT, the General Union of Tunisian workers which had brought us here. Two young women and three young men were killed by police bullets in these streets.

‘The tragic force of this uprising belongs to all humanity. That’s why we gave our kids. Your visit shows that the revolution continues, it isn’t just for Regueb and it doesn’t stop there. In this little hall you see pictures of martyrs of 1952, people from here who died in the anti-colonial struggle; then you see our hand-painted Palestinian banner. This little hall is part of our daily life, home for our activists whether from Palestine or Regueb.’ The syndicalistes spoke from a stage carrying hand-painted portraits of past labour heroes, while all over the ceiling and side walls were dotted far more recent images, CGI collages inspired by the Palestinian intifada and increasingly the Tunisians’ own.

Because Regueb is so small and the moment so intense, there didn’t seem to be the usual gap between generations or classes. When young people left the meeting it was to go outside and sing ‘songs of the revolution’. We came out to find them under a magnificent photocollage of their lost friends. As we walked out through Regueb an elderly woman in traditional dress came up to me, embraced me personally and asked me to stay. She was speaking Arabic but we understood each other. It is my final memory of the unique political space in Regueb, ‘the land of free people’ where every single person seems to be finding a new voice.

It came as no surprise to hear that one week later Regueb’s citizens came together and created a new town council to represent them in this dangerous gap between the fall of the old dictatorship in January and the new elections in July. Nor to see pictures on Youtube of  Regueb women from all ages and backgrounds filling their streets at the start of the Arab Spring, under banners spelling ‘Je suis Femme, ne touche pas ma Liberte’. All sorts of ideas for solidarity actions have already started and can be seen and joined through the links below. It took another guest from Dakar, Demba Moussa Dembele, to add ‘We witnessed’.

This is what the people we met are expecting from us: ‘a proof that you care about the Tunisian revolution and the weaponless people who faced a criminal dictatorship, and sacrificed their lives and were injured, so that we can raise our voices today and say what we think should be said.’ These are the  words of Mohamed Salah Abidi, whose son Shady Abidi was at the heart of the ‘internet revolution’ in Regueb and was disabled by bullets from a police sniper.

Those of us who visited from Europe have another obligation, to keep the gates of the fortress open. Leading trade unionist Alessandra Mecozzi from the radical Italian union, FIOM told our hosts in Regueb: ‘We’re here to thank you for this revolution, we have great, great trust in you. We’ll push our governments to freeze bank accounts and repatriate the money stolen from you. We are with you; we don’t want a closed Europe. We are ashamed of our government saying it wants to deport young Tunisians. Europe must welcome all these people. ‘ We must keep our ears open as well as our borders.

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