In the wake of Tunisia’s inspiring revolution, Giuseppe Caruso offers reflections on his involvement in a recent ‘solidarity caravan’ to the country.
‘You can tear a flower but you can’t stop spring from coming!’
(An activist in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia)
The African Social Forum, continental chapter of the World Social Forum (WSF), has convened a solidarity caravan across Tunisia from 1 to 5 April to meet the women and men that ignited the transformations that now affect several countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Dubbed by mainstream media the Arab Spring (though it started in December), the wave of protests started in Tunisia spread like wildfire through Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and on to Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia (briefly, or so it seems) Syria and Libya. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and the ousting of their dictators have given a distinctive flavour of exhilaration and hope to the latest World Social Forum held in Dakar from 6 to 11 February.
Gathering around the vision of Another World is Possible, 70,000 activists from over 100 countries convened in the Senegalese capital for the 9th global convention of the world largest transnational activist network. In the eleven years since its inception, the WSF has gathered over 10,000 civil society organisations and social movements and in excess of a million participants in its global events in Brazil, Venezuela, Mali, Dakar, Kenya, Pakistan and India.
After the closure of the Dakar event, the WSF International Council plenary meeting was opened by a revolutionary song performed by a Tunisian activist. The song was accompanied by the rhythmic clapping of the moved audience. Following the touching words of an Egyptian activists still shaken by the news of Mubarak’s resignations (coinciding with the closing ceremony the day before), and after a wealth of vibrant remarks by activists from the four corners of the planet that the Arab intifadas had returned hope to a global movement battered by the consequences of the latest global crises, the International Council expressed the unanimous wish to show support to activists in North Africa with a symbolic caravan to the first country to oust its dictator, Tunisia indeed.
Thirty-four civil society and movements activists from 13 countries and three continents joined the conveners of the African Social Forum. We were hosted by the Union Générale de Travailleurs de Tunisie (UGTT), the largest Tunisian trade union, whose role was instrumental in the success of the Tunisian intifada. What follows are some reflections inspired by my participation in the solidarity caravan.
THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE
The first day the caravan was welcomed by the UGTT. The support given by the UGTT to the revolution enabled it to spread and eventually succeed. The union, while infiltrated by the state and the ruling party, managed to keep alive workers’ aspirations towards participatory economic democracy and those aspirations were key in supporting the demands and the aspirations of the Tunisian revolutionaries. However, it would be misleading to consider it as a coherent body. Its internal complexities, its previous relationships with the regime and its current ideological, political and religious differences, its multiple visions of the future and of the paths to fulfil them make of the UGTT a network of ideas, people and resources that represent the complexities of the wider Tunisian society.
In Mohamed Ali Hammi square, where the headquarters of the UGTT are located, we were welcomed by trade union, women, human rights and student activists belonging to Association Tunisienne de Femme Democrates, Ligue Tunisienne pour la defence des Droits de l’Homme, Ligue des Auteurs Libres, Union generale des etudiants Tunisiens, Associacion Tunisienne Contre la Torture, Association de Jeunes pour la Continuation de la Révolution, the Student Union and El Taller. We expressed our admiration and solidarity and we offered our support and the promise to carry their stories, their struggles and their aspirations with us and share them in whatever ways we could as our commitment to contribute to imagine and construct a better world, more just and equal, each of us in the places where we live and work. We also explained that we wished to explore the viability of a regional and continental Social Forum in Tunisia to celebrate the revolution and support the transition.
The most vivid images of that first day, though are of a demonstration of a few thousand people that we crossed path with shortly after leaving the UGTT headquarters. The demonstration that passed in front of the National Theatre paraded in front of us and continued towards the Kasbah where it settled into what became the Kasbah 3 sit-in. It followed the successful Kasbah 1 and 2 that called for the change of the interim governments that followed president Ben Ali’s departure still tainted by members of the previous regime. As I write critical reflections are being developed of the disappointing outcome of Kasbah 3 which demanded the exclusion of the current Interior Minister from the provisional government.
After mixing and mingling with the demonstrators, pedestrians, café goers and passers-by of the Avenue Bourguiba were returned to their passionate daily activity, political discussion. Hundreds of people, mostly men in the central section and more mixed groups at the tables of the surrounding cafés gathered, as they do daily since January, and groups formed and reformed to discuss the topic of the day, the Interior Minister, the arrogance of the current Prime Minister, the members of the former ruling party still involved in current politics, along with broader ideological, pragmatical and aspirational issues regarding the future of the revolution, the transition process and its goals.
Those conversations can be breathed everywhere in Tunisia, as I experienced in the following days they impregnate the Mediterranean and the desert breezes. But the perspective over the buzzing Boulevard, as it disappeared behind the bus that took us to our next meeting, was impressive, it looked like an open air forum burst, blossomed, out of decades of repression. Enthusiastic citizens discussed and negotiated their differences, exchanged their experiences, disagreed vehemently, even shouted their frustration and disappointments contributing to give form to their visions and inspiring in each other actions and daily practices towards the establishment of a new society.
Those receding images of the demonstration, commented by the Tunisian friend with us on the bus, told an important story, despite differences, challenges and the titanic tasks demanding fulfilment, the utmost joy felt by all in Tunisia is that talking politics is indeed fine, that expressing one’s ideas, negotiating them, discussing them, and demonstrating for them is not repressed any more. The demonstrators in Bourguiba Avenue were not only pursuing a very specific political objective, the reinstatement of the former interior minister or at least the replacement of the current, they were also showing their pride at having conquered the right to demonstrate freely.
The following day we visited Kasserine. On the outskirts, a burnt furniture shop, a smashed police van and a service station, its windows in tatters, welcomed the travellers. We stopped shortly after at the central square, where we introduced ourselves to some of the youth who, literally, made history. The young people we spoke to had friends arrested, beaten, killed during the demonstrations or were themselves hurt and maimed by police and security forces brutality. Seventy of them lost their life in the revolution but that was not enough to stop the tide of change. Today the permanent sit-in in Kasserine demands the jobs, the justice and the dignity those girls and boys died for. No less. And they are prepared, they tell us, to fight more if necessary. They can’t stop now, they owe it to their legitimate aspirations and to the memory of those who died.
Later, we were received at the local UGTT branch. In a large hall, over hundred people gathered to welcome us. In the intense atmosphere made hazy by the smoke of cigarettes inhaled with anxiety and pain, mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers and friends told us their tragedies, their losses, their suffering, their fight, their hope. In a more intimate setting on the third floor of the big building, we met later with others who lost their beloved and cried for justice, who were tortured and demanded their rights.
I spoke to a lawyer of the lawyers’ union whose role was instrumental in backing the youth in the streets in the hottest days of the revolution. She was sitting next to me. Considering what I heard, the pictures I saw, the crying that could move mountains she told me she understood my dismay. Few metres to my left the sister of one of the youth killed in January was holding the wet hands of one of us and the mother of another victim of the revolution is drying the tears of another. To my right the lawyer keeps talking, maybe to help us both fight our ghosts. She says that it is not so difficult any more, it wasn’t at the beginning either now that she thinks about it, and it wasn’t throughout. She says ‘once you see death right next to you, you fear no more’. And at the beginning it was not courage, it was despair that moved the bodies of those marching against baton charges and live bullets.
Fear has not disappeared she adds, ‘fear is with us every single minute of our life’, inflicted on Tunisian people by 23 years of dictatorship and exacerbated by distance and marginalisation. She also tells me about the distance from Tunis and the utter abandonment to which the Western districts have been subjected for decades: ‘only the international press has come here, and now you.’ ‘The Tunisians dislike us deeply, they always did, what you find here around is what the French left. They do not respect us, they do not want us, thankfully there is the Algerian border so close, we get everything from there and cheaper.’
Later that day I ask a union activist, beaten up by the police and who had to spend days in hospital while the revolution won and Ben Ali departed, how can the fear that paralyses become the fear that can’t be stopped. He told me, he was smiling, that ‘fear is a daily sentiment that has become part of mine and everyone’s life, but fear can be beaten. It is an inexplicable feeling when you face, fight and win your deepest fears.’ There was no emphasis in his voice, as if he were explaining the simplest occurrence in any individual’s existence. Later that evening I repeated to myself those words while I stared in the eyes of the sunset beyond the mountains towards Algeria.
SIDI BOUZID AND REGUEB
The revolution started in 2008 in the mining district of Gafsa and discontent increased until the fire that burnt Mohammed Bouazizi ignited the youth first and then the whole country. Recently the fabric of Ben Ali’s authoritarianism was wearing thin and tearing. The regime had become more brutal and less sophisticated, it had become sclerotic and unable to adapt. Its violence and repression, its only way to keep control, eventually doomed itself. It was humiliation that ignited Mohammed Bouazizi. The humiliated dignity of a vegetable seller whose livelihood was destroyed by abusive public officials, was every youth’s and then every Tunisian’s humiliated dignity. His pain was everyone’s pain and the irresistible empathy that his tragic protest generated produced the final outburst which escalated and could not be stopped. The repeated violation of the youth’s sense of autonomy, self-respect and integrity sparked the revolution. When such horizons of personal representations are denied and when lying to oneself about the real conditions of one’s existence becomes impossible the trauma is such that even dying is acceptable and burning oneself up a viable protest.
In Sidi Bouzid, the expanses of white and purple daisies framed the whitewashed building of the regional hospital. Inside lay a young man who immolated himself to protest against the unjust arrest of his brother. Outside, his mother cried and cried against a background of gardens and olive trees running against the horizon. She held hands as if those hands were his son’s life. Come, she said, see what they have done to us, let people know, let justice, wherever she is, know and ask her to visit this forsaken corner of the world.
Earlier at the headquarters of the UGTT we met some of those who are striving to channel the revolution towards achieving its goals, who are attempting to transform the sheer power of people into jobs and political influence. The youth not too far, shy and suspicious, tell some of us that some of the people in the big room are not true allies, not honest souls. Some of them were members of Ben Ali’s regime, they still reminded everyone how the union was infiltrated, controlled, repressed.
Later, in an olive grove, eating a banquet of sheep meat and salads dripping the delicious olive oil of the region, we asked each other with incredulity how we could tell the genuine from the demagogic and the demagogic from the outright false among the rhetoric that seemed to express the same discourses of liberation and the same aspiration to justice and development for all? This was not the first time that youth in sit-ins, in squares far from the ears of trade union leaders told us in whispers to open our eyes to avoid to be deceived. In Kasserine, a group of young unemployed with whom a few of us stopped to discuss demands (jobs) and dreams (a passage to Europe), told us that there was no trust in those who wanted to use the dead girls and boys for their political advantage. Few steps away from us, as in the square of Sidi Bouzid, some of them are on hunger strike until their demands are fulfilled. All they wanted was jobs and they would not have played the politics game.
We visited, that third day of our caravan also the town of Rgueb were local activists showed us their contribution of blood and life to the freedom of their people. On the bus towards the hotel we compared notes, we talked endlessly. We talked politics, experiences, analyses, theories, anything that could deafen the screams of the dead teenagers shot by snipers a few meters above their heads. I had seen some of the pictures and videos, but it was only when I saw the size of the buildings in Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid that I perceived the magnitude of the atrocity. Snipers shot from positions no more than five metres above the street level. It was not the impersonal videogame-like killing that snipers seem to evoke. Those men and women from the roof could see the eyes of the girls and boys they chose to annihilate.
We also discussed the role of media and technology in supporting activists. Facebook was in everyone’s mouth, Al Jazeera’s journalists were praised for their courage and dedication (though, some told us, ‘in the long run we can’t forget they are islamists’). But while nobody denied the supportive role of new social media, the general understanding was that though they helped they were certainly not the determining factors pace the international media (perhaps too eager to stress how western technology democratizes the world). Activists in Sidi Bouzid told us something else. They explained to us their sophisticated street strategy. They used cellphones to create zones of pressure and release in lightening-fast succession to disorient the police who ended up running around the town like headless chicken. It was the knowledge of the town down to its tiniest alleyways that won the control of the city, no Facebook or other social media could have been fast enough, they stress, or provided the strength and the courage necessary.
At the refugee camp of Ras Jber we arrive early afternoon on the fourth day. The blazing sun that welcomes us makes the little market, the tents, our bus and everything else sparkle against the yellow sand and the blue sky. It is a beautiful corner of the southern Mediterranean marked now by 150,000 stories of loss since the explosion of the Libyan conflict and by the five thousand souls running from war and persecution without a place to go. We meet the authorities of the camp, the representatives of the Tunisian army, of IOM and UNHCR. They all tell us that while the limitations are common to refugee camps and inevitable in situations of this kind, there is something unique in this crisis, the hospitality of the local population. So impressive the sentiments of hospitality and their logistical skills in distributing, before the camp was even built, food, water, blankets, that two hundred of them have become UNHCR volunteers in recognition of their work.
Coincidentally, while we were introduced to the hospitality of the people of south Tunisia, the Italian Prime Minister and his delegation met their Tunisian counterparts in Tunis to discuss an agreement on the migrant crisis which involved shutting down Italy and Europe and send back the thousands deluded migrants who thought hospitality was one of the values of a continent that likes to preach to the world cosmopolitan ideals. If those migrants knew that in Italy a debate rages on the extent to which the boats that carry them, in which they risk their lives and die by the dozens, can be shot at to prevent their landing on national shores!
We roam around the camp, moving from one side to the other to meet with different people. We meet a football player from the Ivory Coast, a group of Nigerians forgotten by their government, and some citizens from Chad and Niger who wonder why all the others are coming and going and they are still there. Later we are told that the availability of funds to repatriate those whose governments are not providing the flights is limited and their processing time longer than anyone would desire. At least they know they will make it home at some point. For the two thousand Somali currently at the camp, there is nowhere to go, though UNHCR is starting the process to assess their requests of asylum.
At night we stop at a family run restaurant on our (long) way back to Tunis. We share songs, some dance, we eat excellent food and we stare at the sea metres away from our table. At the end the Italian contingent of the delegation can’t find a better way to thank the hosts than sing Bella Ciao and to our surprise not only hand-claps followed our tune but versions of Bella Ciao in many languages. Every activist in the world, someone said, knows the song of the partisan who died for freedom. In Tunisia those words have a special resonance these days.
REPRESENTING THE TUNISIAN REVOLUTION
A visit of short length can achieve only a sketchy portrait of a gigantic work in progress in which rubbles are moved from one side to the other and new relations and institutions are built in its midst as outcome of multiple tensions and conflicts of which only a few are evident to the superficial gaze of a solidarity traveller often unaware of the specificities of the local cultural and social context. Moreover, during those days driving across the whole length and breadth of Tunisia, life rolled over us at a very fast pace, too fast to be able to take stock. With some distance, images crystallise into coherent tales and tales suggest meanings, inspire analyses, suggest answers to questions and raise questions to answers trying to portrait the building of a new Tunisia.
A key challenge encountered by many in representing the Tunisian revolution (and more broadly the unrest sweeping through the whole region) has been constituted by banal stereotyping and versions of negative and positive Orientalism. The awed surprise that welcomed the events of Tunisia, and soon after Egypt and the others, was constructed on the widespread misconception about the inability of the people of the MENA region to affect real change and be agent of their own emancipation from oppressive rule. Such misrepresentation is based on limited knowledge and preconceptions, political propaganda, Orientalism and outright racism.
Ben Ali himself (and Mubarak and the other dictators of the region as well) looked with contempt at his own citizens and considered them too unsophisticated to be entrusted with democracy or any agency over their social and economic destiny. The consequences of his behaviour, his demise, his ousting, his near escape, could be interpreted as a wider warning to the elitist, the racist, the Orientalist. This revolution may have already changed the stereotypes of the submissive, agency deprived, Arab. But as the transition processes develop they may contribute to the elaboration of new democratic practices whose resonance exceeds the national boundaries and make the Tunisian youth rise to the secular Pantheon of historical revolutionaries. And those young activists, more than anything else, feel proud for returning their countries to global history not as dependent or slaves but as empowered actors in the process of negotiating values and institutions of a truly cosmopolitan planet. As an activist in Regueb said ‘we welcome relationships with Western partners’, but, he explained, he has in mind ‘an equal relationship, not one based on charity’ with activists, intellectuals and NGO members rather than governments. He envisaged a horizontal collaboration to build a cosmopolitan project from the ground up, defined while ‘walking’ together rather than a-priori, a-historical projections of conviviality, morality and human nature.
THE DEMANDS OF THE TUNISIAN REVOLUTIONARIES
‘We want justice, equality, freedom’
(Women’s rights activist, Tunis)
It seemed possible at times, in Kasserine and Sidi Buzid for instance, to feel that it was all so clear and simple. Jobs, is what all demanded, and dignity. Dignity and work, though, became more complex tags when unpacked. Then justice was added to the initial demands and retribution for the repression, the killings, the torture. And then development and equality. And emancipation. Emancipations, in fact. It is only by freeing themselves from the many slaveries that bind them that the youth of Tunisia aim at achieving their goals, jobs, dignity, justice, development, democracy. It is for freedom that so many of them lost their lives.
Freedom from the dictator, from oppressive and exploitative political and economic systems, from ideological hegemonies, from shrewd political manipulations, from the embodiment of class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality. There are other ways in which their demands are framed, other discourses, other semantic horizons in which their aspirations are articulated. There is one for each interlocutor and context (as it is the case in complex revolutionary networks of ideas, actors and values). Activists in Tunisia know that the same goal needs to be achieved in relation with the multiplicity of discursive and material spaces in which they live. So they talk also of civil and political rights as immediate demands and the rule of law, new fair and transparent electoral laws, institutional openness, right to form political parties and to demonstrate, a responsive government and human rights sensitive police. They demand development and equality and, as the youth I spoke to in the central square of Kasserine, ‘a job and a normal life’. It is the apparent simplicity of this demand that can be misleading. This is not a simple demand, ‘a normal life’ is the most complex of all demands and the difficulties to achieve it does not elude them. The tension between the simplicity of its formulation and the obstacles in achieving it is what motivated the hunger strikers in Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid, they know they are entitled to a normal life and they will get it come what may.
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