Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


3