Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Tunisian thoughts

I arrived back from Tunisia last night and have been mulling over the experience today. The people I met there have left a deep impact on me. I was struck by their courage and dignity as they relayed tales of suffering under the disposed dictator Ben Ali.

I heard stories of torture, of systemic rape against men and women, of people being imprisoned for handing out leaflets, for gathering in groups of more than two or just for calling a relative whose name was on a secret police list.

Because the Tunisian people have been through such horrendous repression, the new democracy movement is holding onto its new freedoms like the parents of a new-born child.

There is a determination to prevent the gains of the revolution from being stolen from them, and concern that the interim government is just playing a stalling game while the old guard reconstitute themselves in new clothing.

The movement has set up a Committee to Protect the Revolution to over see the transition from the old to the new. And for good reason. By no means is it the case that the terror apparatus has been dismantled.

I got a flavour of the fear they instil when I attended a protest in the Casbah in Tunis. I joined with protestors as they prevented militarily vehicles from leaving the Casbah for fear that if they went, elements of the police and security services would attack. Generally, people seem to feel that the army are closer to the people than the police.

I was really struck by the sophistication of the activists that I met, many of whom had spent years in exile in the West.

Some of these are Islamist activists, and for those who swallow neo-con propaganda that democratic reform will usher in Iranian style regimes, they would do well to meet members of the largest Islamist party, Ennahdha (Renassiance).

They conveyed to me that for years their party had had an absolute commitment to upholding democracy, civil liberties, pluralism, and had rejected the Iranian model.

The leader of the party, Rached Ghannouchi, has been forthright in his condemnation of the recent brutal killing of a Catholic priest, in the wake of which at least 2,000 people attended a demonstration under the slogan "I'm Muslim, I'm secular, I am Tunisian".

It is yet to be established who is responsible for the killing.

I feel my visit is the start of a long relationship with the Tunisian people. I came back determined to enrol in French and Arabic classes so that next time I go back, I won't be needing the help of a translator.

Both George Galloway and Viva Palestina have a very high profile in Tunisia, and when I was introduced as the Leader of the Respect Party I always received an outpouring of gratitude for being there.

The generosity of the Tunisian people is humbling, because in truth, I am the one who is indebted to them. Their courage, determination and self sacrifice is inspirational and testimony to the best of our human nature.