“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 the 1th to the 5th of 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 the 6th to the 11th of 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 thirteen countries and three continents joined the conveners of the African Social Forum. We were hosted by the Union Generale 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 Auteur 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.
The youth or the youths of Tunisia?
Some suggested that the youth in Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid are less politically wise than the youth in Tunis. Some suggested that decades of marginalisation from the rest of the country and economic and political privileges in the capital have generated profound social and human imbalances. One consequence of these imbalances, it is alleged by some of our Tunisian interlocutors, is that the youth in the most deprived areas are easier to manipulate and subject to launch themselves in unrealistic and unsophisticated political actions, like the hunger strike demanding immediate jobs to all unemployed the chances of success of which are nil beyond the actual will of local and national authorities. Others observed that the revolution has to avoid reproducing among allies the marginalisation and the elitism of wider society in order to avoid creating an unbridgeable gap between activists on the basis of alleged political and cultural sophistication defined in exclusive terms.
These reflections raised a related issue, the relative poignancy of the analytical category of “the youth”. This category while highlighting the existential ordeals encountered by an entire generation in establishing themselves as active and productive members of a society, in constructing a family and, eventually, contributing to the reproduction of their society, it also obliterates multiple social and individual differences. Age is not enough to understand the dynamics at play in Tunisia. Regional and class imbalances, play a crucial role along social and political capital, culture, ideology, religious convictions and practices, gender and others yet. While the youth in Kasserine stressed repeatedly they did not want to be implicated in political battles played on their behalf by people who they did not trust, in Tunis a member of the student union said instead that they were struggling to ignite a “deep social transition” aimed at ushering “a world devoid of capitalism and classism”. He added “we revolted against an economic pattern because we want Tunisia for all Tunisians”. It was not all, he saw many Western activists in his audience and he implicitly sent a message across to those who are anxious about the prevalence of religion in the new Tunisian society: “as far as religious ideologies are concerned, we say that we won against Ben Ali and we shall win against all dictatorships and totalitarianisms”.
There is also one further issue to consider along with cleavages, tensions and other differences as they are perceived in among the Tunisian youth. The context of the communication plays a crucial role in formulating the code of the exchange between local activists and travellers. In the square we spoke with some of the local youth. In Tunis a broader audience and a more formal event elicited a more self-conscious performance and defined the agenda of the speaker. While this observation is so obvious to be almost banal, it has large repercussions on the way a visitor is exposed to nuances and complexities of a huge transformative process involving an entire society. On the cultural politics of representation I will say a few more words in the post scriptum to this text. While the range of demands, discourses and ideological frames is so broad and differentiated so too are the political and pragmatic approaches to action for change.
Politics and practices of change
The debates on practices of change revolve around several alternative or articulated approaches including transitional justice, workers struggles, revolutionary democratic fronts, insurgent practices, civil disobedience, representative politics.
A member of the student union in Tunis regarding practices of change commented that as union “we distinguish political work from union work.” Further, he said “We want to have a political party for the working class”, it would be one of the 51 registered political parties in Tunisia. Such blossoming of political parties witnesses the renewed hope of Tunisians in representative politics and the great differentiation that followed the victory against Ben Ali. A women’s rights and union activist commented that the best way to pursue a democratic and energetic struggle is to “create a progressive democratic front to avoid the return of despotism and defend mutual respect and the principles of the revolution.” In the spirit of connecting the Tunisian struggle with that of people from other regions a UGTT delegation will travel to Brazil to explore ways to form a party like the PT (Worker’s Party). And the representative of the Brazilian CUT reflected on how useful it could be to share the Brazilian experiences in solidarity economy, cooperative, family farming and small business with the local activists.
While the confidence in the democratic system is widespread, some activists highlight how democratic processes need to rest on strong foundations in order to be successful. The presence of many elements of the former regime, at the level of the districts, regions and indeed in ministries, professional and even sport organisations calls for a continued vigilance. A rather more insurgent strategy of change is articulated by some in the left and among the youth and, some suggest, also among religious activists.
The role of women in developing, articulating and practising methodologies of change has been greatly influential in the revolution. An activist in Tunis expressed in the following way her take on change and practices of transformation “we are for the internationalisation of the revolutions to fight against savage capitalism”. Another woman suggested transitional justice, and another still suggested a combination of long term healing processes with constitutional developments and representative politics. The crucial role of women has been recently acknowledged by the Supreme Council for the Defence of the Revolution which has adopted, on the 11th of April, a law on the election of the constituent assembly whose article 16 established the principle of gender parity in all lists that will be presented for these elections. The importance of this achievement can’t be overstated. As all women’s associations noted, it is a unique opportunity for Tunisia and sets an inspiring example for the entire region.
Some, mentioning the experiences of transition in Spain, Portugal, Chile and East Europe suggest transitional justice as a longer, more complex and more sophisticated way to deal with prolonged injustice under an authoritarian regime that used abuse, intimidation, harassment, torture and corruption to define relationship of power and distribution of resources. While drafting this report I follow a streaming from Tunis of the International Conference on Transitional Justice attended by some of the people we met in Tunisia. Justice and dignity, democracy and accountability, while resonating of profoundly human components are treated as processes whose length and developments are slow, hardly predictable and involve a wealth of actors whose influence exceeds often the national and the regional boundaries. In the elegant conference hall where practitioners, academics, civil society activists met, welcomed by the education minister of the current caretaker government, mention is made repeatedly to the epochal changes sparked by the Tunisian Revolution and to the difficult tasks ahead. Whereas the dictator has fled, justice has yet to be apportioned, institutions need to be developed and democracy and equality are far from being achieved.
“Nothing has changed, here they are all the same as before, thieves and corrupt” (Youth activist in Kasserine)
The multiplicity of demands, actors and practices is perceived by some as political and strategic fragmentation and a potentially damning weakness. Whereas they achieved a quick and resounding success, the revolutionary forces are now facing a long process of transition full of ordeals and challenges. Such challenges come from the international sphere, from the national context or are indeed internal to the revolutionary front.
According to some activists, the international agents and institutions of capitalism and imperialism are trying to destroy the Tunisian revolution and set back the advances it has inspired in Tunisia and in the whole MENA region. Moreover, news have been circulated that intelligence services are entering the country to stop the revolution as a trade union member warned the audience in Tunis. The dictatorships of North Africa were widely supported by Western governments who found in those strong men reliable allies and a convincing weapon against the spread of the much feared Islamist movement. But the fear of Islamic radicalism has an internal dimension in Tunisia.
Islamism’s growing influence and assertiveness not only concerns Western commentators and governments, it does also concern Tunisians who are concerned about the risk of currently minor forces stealing the revolution. As a human rights activist told me: “I can understand why Western people keep asking about the risk of Islamization: I live with them and I’m scared by them. I can only imagine how scared people must be who do not know how this people think and act”. A leader of the UGTT remarked, at the meeting in Tunis, that “Tunisia is no Pakistan and in no way will it become like Iran. We have a tradition of living in democracy and we know that mosques are places of worship not politics. We are secular and we believe in the rule of law.”
But Islamism is not the only challenge faced by the Tunisian Intifada. As many activists mentioned, though the dictator has be chased away it is necessary to transform the dictatorship. The people who represented Ben Ali’s power in society are still in their positions as governors, judges, university deans and rectors, even as union leaders. Those networks of power are still not only firmly in control of their positions but closely connected and resisting the changes ushered by the institutionalisation of the revolutionary efforts. They work in the dark, plot, resist and they could launch a full-fledged counter-revolution.
There are also internal challenges to the revolutionary movement. There exist tensions between those who want to go back to normality and those who want to fight for a full victory of the revolution and the achievement of a larger set of victories. Their opponents suggest instead that the time has come to revert to representative politics through free and fair elections and the work of the constituent assembly. There seem to be several differentiations developing between the once united activists. Now that the main enemy has been defeated, differences have space to flourish. Ideological, political, identity, class, etc. are developing at times in tension with each other and while many consider this a wealth of creativity to be fostered others consider such fragmentation a challenge to the same survival of the revolution as it exposes it to the return of powerful counter-revolutionaries.
Visions and paradigms of transformation
“This event, I believe, will change the world like WWII, it will lead to all sorts of institutional changes that will change the world.” (Women’s rights and trade union activist)
What do recursive dynamics between demands, political practices, actors, resources and challenges suggest about the visions and the emerging paradigms of development towards a better world emerging in Tunisia? This question sparked engaging conversations among the members of the solidarity caravan and between us and the Tunisian activists we met or travelled with. This question raises issues of global solidarity, development and political models and sets the ground for the cooperation between activists from the four corners of the planet. The joint Secretary General of the UGTT, told us in Tunis about the vision and values of the UGTT: “UGTT’s cultural tradition is European and socialist which we influence with new blood.” He further said that to achieve the international goals of Tunisian workers it is important to establish stronger ties with the international union movement and with unions in South America, South Africa and elsewhere in the global South.
Just as coherent is the vision of human rights activists of a global democracy governed by human rights and the rule of law. Development for both strands of activist revolves around some version of sustainable growth. Values of cooperation and autonomy underpin the relationship between international partners. Cultural and religious specificities need to be inbuilt in the local instantiations of development aspirations and institutional configurations and all need to be tied to the broader fabric of economic globalisation and global governance. Some of these debates resonate with wider global debates and contribute to their deepening and broadening while linking them to local practices and to the demands and practices of the revolutionary youth. How this broadening and deepening will be influenced by the Tunisian contribution and will influence in turn the vision of the Tunisian transition is too early to see.
At the same time younger activists than the seasoned unionists and human rights activists are developing visions of better futures and are learning politics the hard way after decades of silencing, terror, repression, fear and hopelessness. They submit their demands to mistrusted government institutions, they understand their failure in generating economic development and political accountability, they scale up, down, sideways their demands and their strategies, they win and lose and they go back to the drawing board. They discuss, deliberate and try again. Messy as such trial and error is, complex as the shifting allegiances and alliances, chaotic as the multiplication of strategies, ideologies, ideas, visions, desires, aspirations, this is what democracy looks like and this process promises the most inspiring outcomes.
While listening to the praises many articulate of Bourguiba’s policies on education, one had the impression that Tunisian learning achievements are now entering a new phase outside of the classrooms of indoctrination and pedantic learning of useless “knowledge”, as doubtlessly illustrated by the high unemployment rate of graduates, and into the streets of relations and struggles, negotiations, differences, mediations. Knowledge, politics, culture, religion, dignity and aspirations, eventually met in the streets, emancipated by schools like jail, freed of the hopelessness of trust in something that is handed by a gracious government and empowered by success and failure, by action and thought, by deliberation and struggle, by trial and error by knowledge as it is, messy, dirty and bloody at times, rather than the sanitized and delusional knowledge imparted by any (more or less) tyrannical regime.
In these diverse and complex senses, the revolutions in the MENA region may inspire new articulations between culture and religion, society, economy and politics. Such articulations are context specific and neither necessary nor inherent. Unique contributions to the global recipe are given by the Arab Spring as they are given by India, Indonesia, Brazil and the other democracies whose understanding and experience of the relationship between religion, economy and politics is unique rather than dictated by the ideological equation between secularism, liberal economy and democracy, outcome of a unique history that has not been, is not and will not be reproduced anywhere else in the world (pace stagist ideologists).
Enter the World Social Forum?
Such an understanding of collaborative learning and building of shared visions across national boundaries, calls for solidarity on the basis of a multiplicity of articulations of democracy rather that a support to an uncritical reproduction of a reified (though eminently colonial) model of democracy which is not based on true recognition, does not support autonomy and self-determination (of individuals and communities) and eventually creates dependence and breeds resentment.
This solidarity caravan and the meeting of the Maghreb Social Forum taking place in Tunisia from the 19th to the 23rd of April contributed to building the political argument for a regional social forum in Tunisia towards the end of the year to commemorate the first anniversary of the revolution and perhaps a World Social Forum in Tunisia or somewhere in the region. Our group expressed to the people we met our interest in linking their struggles with our work around the world and in particular through the work in and of the WSF. We might have used more time to discuss with the activists we met what they thought about the idea of a Forum in Tunisia, about the idea of forum, and about transnational activism. Those and so many other topics are left for the next visit to Tunisia.
Post Scriptum: Political Tourism and Ethical Issues, on the cultural politics of representation.
Whereas above I mentioned some of the limitations of international media’s representation of the struggle for recognition, dignity, freedom, jobs, democracy and development by the people of the MENA region, the notes that follow sketchily record the “being there” of the political traveller and its influence on the representation of encounters and contexts in reports such as this one.
The objective of the caravan as I mentioned above was twofold. On the one hand it aimed at representing and conveying the solidarity of the activists of the International Council of the World Social Forum and, on the other, to look, listen, record and report images and stories of the revolution and the transition that Tunisian people were undergoing. Both goals were fulfilled in haste; hugs and handshakes exchanged briefly; stories told quickly. The non-said, the non-communicated was the greatest part. Allusions and projections constituted the deepest content of the exchanges.
Urgency travelled with the caravan and at each stop defined the spaces it settled in. Avid picture taking and video shooting, anxious interview recording of witnesses’ accounts, and all around the pain of victims and parents, relatives and friends that surpassed by many orders of magnitude what many of us thought they could express or hope to capture in our pictures, videos and audio recordings. The inevitable superficiality of much of the communication with the dozens of people we met and heard from came with a related limitation, reduced reciprocity. Both partners had to explain a lot to each other and spoke fast. We had to say who we were, what the WSF was, what our individual organisations did and stood for and why we were there. They had to tell us about the revolution, the hopes, the frustrations, the pain, the anguish, the rage, the visions, the dreams, the practices. There were moments nonetheless of deep engagements, but were inevitably exceptions. During the long drives across the country members of the caravans mentioned the deep connections they felt with that particular person, through those quickly exchanged lines, through just a hug or through the touch of the hands of a bereaved mother that cleaned tears from the face of one of us.
In Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid we listened to a mother crying, to a mutilated young man, to a beaten up boy, to the sister of a heroic brother, she cried, she could not stop. We heard the story of the father of a killed teenager, and of the father of a 16 year old victim, a martyr. The voice of a guy with a broken foot resonated long after we left the room: “We gave everything, our blood, our life”. We discussed at length among ourselves our feelings, the impact of those stories and of the pictures of the dead bodies, of the portraits, of the unaware smiles that could not foretell the future. A member of our group, an Italian woman, told me “at least we women know how to express what we feel, we cry. Poor you.” I made a note to self on my diary. Later I asked another woman that I saw crying in that room in Kasserine what she felt, how she found in herself the answer to what she saw, what was she telling herself while she looked at the rolling landscape outside the window. She told me “I hate what I saw and I hate how we behaved with our picture taking and all the rest.” Later, we thought of a zoo and the recursive relationship between anxious display and ravenous voyeurism. I engaged in several such conversations in the following days and I confirmed that many of us tried to make sense of their feelings and their impressions while asking themselves and to each other how to tell the stories they heard and the images they saw without blinding them with their own feelings but without denying a healthy amount of reflexivity.
There exist troubling implications regarding the ethics of such encounters that are perhaps too numerous and an incomplete list might be all there is space here. Political tourism raises contentious issues about the relationship between the visitors and the hosts and the representation of those relationships. There are also wider issues of context that escape the fleeting relationship to which political tourists are exposed. While heartfelt feelings about the issues addressed are here out of the question, the knowledge of the conflicts at stake might be both limited and oversimplified in symbolic codes that are not more than projections of the foreign observer which are then reproduced in a solipsistic space that while pretending dialogue, indeed reproduces a monologue of images that are selected on the basis of specific interests and emotional sensibilities fully rooted in the eyes of the beholder. Intense communications as many of us described those they established with Tunisian activists might not be a full replacement of long and engaged relationships that might engage and transform be transformative of the simplified symbolic codes and those projections that too often inform short activists’ encounters as the solidarity caravan in Tunisia. Consider also that many of us regularly repeated how little they knew about Tunisia, how ignorant they were of Islam and of the cultural and social dynamics of the region we were visiting, how limited their knowledge was of the pre-colonial, colonial, independence and post colonial histories of Tunisia.
The performative set in which the panels of testimonies took place, in large meeting halls (two of them had stages and in one case the panel took place “on stage”), as in the headquarters of the UGTT where activists, generated further ambiguities and potential misunderstandings (the extent of which we might all be ignorant as we did not have the chance to exchange each others’ perception of “the other”). Indeed, wherever we travelled, victims, family members and friends gathered to provide the visitors with a narrative of the revolution and such performances involved multiple projections, not only those by the visitors’ about who the hosts were but also those of the hosts about who the visitors were and what their expectations were.
I asked a woman, part of our group “why are we doing this if it challenges so many of our basic understandings of the ethics of mutually transformative human relationships and activism?” She replied that “this [the activists’, victims’ and parents’ performance in the UGTT headquarters in Kasserine] responds to our own projections and desires about changing the world”. She later added “there is too much projection and very little listening” in the way we interacted with our hosts. In this sense, then, the representations of what we saw and heard (such as this one) might be selective of those aspects that illustrate our ideas on what is necessary to change the world. We may indeed, have even contributed to reinforce the codification of a discourse and its ossification in performances that trap performers away from transformation. Performance of pain and loss to which we cried and reacted in dismay, performances of claims and demands that we applauded, descriptions of causes and effects that we subscribed to and visions that we embraced may have been responded in less than emancipatory ways. Of course, this might well be one further projection in which the assumption is the imbalance of power between “us” and “them” which I think, though, is illustrated if by nothing else by the fact that after the encounters “they” went back to their lives of unemployed or bereaved family members and friends and “we” moved on to our plush hotel and to our drinks by the poolside.
The speed with which we met people, saw contexts, listened to stories and moved on to the next location to start over, might implicate some attitudes and beliefs that are incongruent with stated and implicit values of our caravan. Speed and connectivity indeed might be squarely positioned within neoliberal social and ideological coordinates. Speed and connectivity were the assumptions on which our caravan was constructed, according to which it is possible to report and represent social struggles through portraits and interviews and those may make the struggles resonate the world over via quick circulation over the Internet.
There is also, one further risk deriving from the relative fleetingness of the relationships established in the few days of our permanence in Tunisia and from the relative ignorance of social, cultural and historical specificities of the region we visited. One is the risk of legitimising political discourses that we do not fully understand, let alone agree with, that we reinforce projections and imaginations that people have about us but we have no ways to negotiate. It was not always easy for us to understand the subtle politics between our direct hosts and their counterparts in the different places we visited. It was not possible to always understand how we were introduced and how we were described. It was never possible to know how we were perceived and how our relationship with our direct host and guide were perceived to be.
One further caveat and recognition of the complexities involved in the representation of the revolutionary struggles and the transition that Tunisians are currently undergoing refers to the relationships that we built among members of the caravan, both Tunisians and visitors, only some of whom knew each other previously, and how the long conversations helped crystallise perceptions and thoughts into forms of more or less collectively built representations of what we saw during those days.
Finally, personal, professional, activist and committed relationships among members of the caravan flowed into each other and challenged the boundaries between the different dimensions. This was undoubtedly one of the most inspiring aspects of the solidarity caravan which allowed us to chat for hours on end during the long transfers on the bus. We did, in fact, spend with each other more time than we spent with the activists we met. We compared notes, we told stories, we exchanged emotions, images, aspirations and visions of individual and global transformation. We talked about ourselves as it is only possible in such moments of shared emotional experience, as only long road journeys can inspire. But we also typed, wrote and shot pictures of the stunning views rolling out of the windows. There was a lot of singing too both on the bus and in a hotel in Gafsa. The performance of Marcel Khalife’s Rita and Fairuz’ Bektob Ismak, among many others, was simply unforgettable.