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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.

An old woman in traditional country dress was sitting with her basket on the kerb of the grand Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, offering me something I couldn't identify. It looked like a bunch of cotton buds, or maybe a rare form of miniature garlic.

'Qu'est-ce que c'est?', I asked in my school French.

'Meshmoum,' she said, and again more urgently, 'Meshmoum', offering the bunch to my nose.

Jasmine! Tunisians take the buds and fix them to dried grasses to make the scent last a long time. I was smelling the Tunisian revolution.

Next door the Interior Ministry – prime site for the mass movements of January – was ringed with razor wire. But the protest meetings had simply moved a few yards. On the steps of a Belle Epoque theatre, newly released political prisoners were addressing a crowd of men and women constantly breaking into small discussion circles. The chief demand was justice for those who had been killed in the uprising; an end to police impunity; arrest and trial not only for those who pulled the triggers but those who gave the orders. It was a demand I heard voiced with increasing desperation as we reached the heartlands of the interior.

Our solidarity tour – organised for the World Social Forum and hosted by the Tunisian League of Human Rights and the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) – arrived in Tunisia midway between Stephen Twigg and Angelina Jolie. The MP was travelling (tourist class, I was pleased to note) with a delegation from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy; the actor, with her entourage, went to the refugee camps on the Libyan border, of which the Tunisian people are immensely – and so justly – proud.

'We thought that the regime had eradicated every good quality we had', said student organiser Yousef Tlili. 'But when they had taken everything, we found there was one thing left – solidarity... When refugees from Libya arrived in the south of Tunisia there was such an immense burst of solidarity that there are still shortages of medicines and staple foods because people bought them to send south when they heard the refugees needed them. Each refugee that arrived – and there were 140,000 in the first week – was greeted by local people with a bottle of water, some bread and some coffee , giving them dignity. The International Red Cross said they had never seen anything like it.'

In return, when Tunisians travel to Europe (not fleeing their revolution but taking up one of its new freedoms, escaping the draconian restrictions imposed by Ben Ali and Ghaddafi in return for bribes from Fortress Europe), the response of the EU is to threaten repatriation.

The fabled hospitality and orderliness of the Tunisians – often mocked in the past by their more explosive North African neighbours, who now find themselves struggling to keep up – was much in evidence on our tour. Half the delegates were paid for by our hosts, who refused to take anything from us.

Saida Garrachi, of Tunisia's main feminist organisation, the Association of Democratic Women, told us: 'We are inventing ourselves from moment to moment. Unexpectedly, this is "the first revolution of the 21st century". If we succeed we will encourage the rest – if we fail, the opposite. Islamists are active in the regions that were disadvantaged by the old regime, banking on their advanced organisation for the coming elections. This is a very fragile process. We need your international connections and solidarity to stop us skidding off track'. A new Tunisian Party of Labour aims to build democracy without falling into neoliberalism or religious bigotry. Its dedication to legality is amazing.

As we approached Sidi Bou Zid, the town where the wave of revolution first gathered, I learned that the local union head had been so close to the regime that he'd called on police to arrest our host Fethi Ben Dbek of the UGTT as a dangerous agitator. Now the same man remains in office, though hopefully not in power; his members are waiting till the elections to get rid of him. His sidekick attempted to filibuster our meeting, but could not stand against the extraordinary intensity of feeling in the hall.

Nejib Beyoui of the teachers' union told us how the revolution began when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate, set fire to himself on 17 December. 'But this was not the first time a young Tunisian had immolated himself. It happened earlier in Monastir [a developed coastal resort], but did not have the same results. Sidi Bou Zid has a long history of oppression. For years there had been different trade union struggles, and peasant farmers also rose up when a promised road was never built by the governor.

'When Bouazizi burned, there was nowhere to treat his wounds properly. There's only one specialist burns unit, near Tunis. The next day we in the teachers', lawyers' and doctors' unions organised a Support Committee with demands for work and dignity, and for Bouazizi to be transferred to our nearest large hospital at Sfax.

'We approached the administration which refused to answer. It was market day, and the town was full of people. The police unleashed unbearable clouds of tear gas; the canisters we collected were labelled "Made in USA". For the first two days, we teachers, doctors and lawyers stood in the streets getting gassed and beaten. The Tunisian media were banned from reporting anything, so we contacted France 24 TV and Al-Arabiya.

'On the second night, young people initiated rolling protests though the different parts of town. A new tactic was to use mobile phones to call on their friends to make a distraction, and draw police away when they got too heavy in any one place. On the third day the governor fled. For 13 days the uprising was in Sidi Bou Zid alone, then it spread through the region via our union branches: Bouzeyen, Regueb, Jilma; and then over to the town of Kasserine.'

This raises the question of how this revolution actually started. Tunis-based youth activist Ramy Sghaier – one of the main organisers of the Kasbah 2 sit-in which ousted the dictator's party and started to set up a new constitution – was definite on this point: 'I don't actually agree that the Internet was the heart of the revolution. The heart of the revolution was the willpower of all the Tunisian people, not just the young.'

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!’

On my last day, the Tunisians slowly came out to play. Elderly women in white scarves, boys turning handstands, men selling melons and prickly pears, a female couple walking hand in hand along the sands; they came politely, in dozens rather than hundreds, and we're mad if we don't come back and join them soon.

This was what Yousef Tlili meant, then, when he concluded his speech on the first day: 'In the course of this revolution I've discovered my country. I've travelled from the mountains to the desert, I've seen parts of my own home town Tunis which I never knew existed... We're discovering our culture; we're discovering the picturesque beaches and extraordinary landscapes which were reserved either for tourists or for "a certain person"....'

That certain person. Ben Ali's old estate at Hammamet is so huge that you can't even see the palace from the gateway. Now it belongs to the army – or officially to the people. After the elections on July 24 we'll see who really is in charge.

To help bring community radio to Kasserine:
[email][email protected] or [email][email protected]
To help bring medical help to Tunisians wounded and disabled in the revolution: [email][email protected] or [email][email protected]

To see international accounts and images of the WSF 'Tour of solidarity with the Tunisian revolution':
[email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.