Tunisia: Another country

Published on Pambahuka News, by Amanda Sebestyen, May 5, 2011.

In Tunisia, the makers of the first Arab democratic revolution are organising for elections. It is not a passive process. Protests are called almost daily and have kept up momentum towards transforming a country rather than ‘just’ evicting a dictator who ruled for 23 years. On the sidelines, the old regime and its angry secret policeman are waiting; on the other side, well-financed religious parties will rise if the hopes of a generation are disappointed. Participating in a solidarity tour to Tunisia, Amanda Sebestyen finds a country of dedicated organisers, heights of suffering and generosity, and a dangerous neglect of the deprived heartlands where the uprising was born … // 

… In Kasserine, known as ‘the capital of martyrs’, the square is festooned with desperate demands from unemployed graduates on hunger strike. As these – so often veterans of the uprising across the country – lie behind us with their PhDs, MAs and college diplomas laid out beside them, local lawyer Salma Abassi explains:

‘Fifty-two people were killed in Kasserine, 13 in this square. A local factory owner hosted snipers on his roof. We chose non-violence; the government ordered the army to shoot on the young people.

‘We invented the first political slogan of the Arab revolutions: “Ben Ali, degage!”. There were no real parties here, the revolution was made by ordinary people and lawyers standing up. I took my three children on all the demonstrations, so they could get the political education I never had the chance to have at their age.

‘But from January till April nothing has happened in Kasserine. The revolution has brought no benefits for us. The National Assembly finally sent us a local representative, but living in Tunis! I am very angry still. ‘

In the trade union hall of Kasserine – under pictures of past labour heroes Farhat Hached, assassinated by French settlers, and Habib Achour, twice imprisoned under Bourguiba’s regime – a row of families and activists held up photos of young people who were killed. One family after another took the platform. ”The snipers who murdered my child are still not in prison’. ‘We have had no compensation’. ‘I don’t want money, I want justice’. ‘There is still no reply from the minister.’ A mother, in tears: ‘Every time I’m alone, every time I do the housework, I remember’.

A young man called Nizar Ferchichi read a Manifesto for the unemployed graduates, ending: ‘C’est l’agonie, le desespoir, Nous voulons l’espoir, la dignite. This is agony and despair – we want hope and dignity. Our symbol is solidarity. The revolution will continue, right to the end.’ Munira Thibia, a small young woman from the poorest quarter, now famous for her bravery said: ‘Guests, please take our stories and make them be seen all over the world’. Nizar’s friend Nasri Charfeddine wants to start a local radio here, so that at last Kasserine can speak for itself instead of only being spoken about.

Someone looking like an El Greco painting, tall and thin with huge eyes, makes his way with grace on crutches to the stage. His leg has been lost… Why are British soldiers being given the best prosthetics and medical help, when these nonviolent heroes – of a democracy we all claim to support – are being left to cope on their own? At our next meeting, I find myself standing up and promising to help. Either to bring a medical team here or to bring the injured to good hospitals in England.

In the week after our visit, ministers visited both Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine for the first time. (Flattering to imagine that our witnessing might have had any influence). Importantly, 80 per cent of development funds for this year are now to be allocated to the long-forgotten interior regions. Unfortunately at Kasserine the ministers stayed for only three hours, spending part of their time with officials from the former regime. Nasri is facing eviction, as rents rise and promised jobs don’t arrive in time or in numbers.

Meanwhile at Sidi Bou Zid, the unpopular Interior Minister was shouted down by striking policemen, demanding that the few officers arrested for implication in the killings should be released. Police have been have been in a menacing sulk for much of the time since Ben Ali left.

At the seaside resort of Hammamet, policemen have virtually disappeared since local people stopped paying bribes. Yet I walked around many times at night and the town was utterly safe; a taxi driver explained how everyone looks out for everyone else. People are more philosophical here. ‘The new policemen we can trust are still in the barracks being trained, and it takes time to track down the bad old ones and put them in prison.’

I enjoyed the glorious beaches almost alone, many holiday companies having foolishly cancelled. A local bather taught me the words of Tunisia’s republican Hymne Nationale, the stirring Risorgimento march I’d heard so often in buses and halls the length of the country.

‘When the people want life, Destiny must surely respond’ – (a sentiment disliked by the fundamentalist ‘integristes’, some of whom are even shopkeepers in this most unlikely of towns) -‘The night must end, And the chains be broken!’ … (full long text).

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