Coach Trip to the 'Arab Spring' (2) Democracy in a Tunisian town
PEOPLE are raising specific demands
AS Tunisians prepare for elections in July, here is the second of AMANDA SEBESTYEN' s reports:
We stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere. High on a hill was a message in Arabic spelled out in white stones: ''WELCOME TO REGUEB, THE LAND OF FREE PEOPLE". Around the next corner we came to Regueb itself, a town of only 8,000 people.
Its tiny hall was filled with the spirit of early trade unionism. You could imagine Chartists and Jacobins speaking like this, as the speakers launched poetic internationalist visions under the linked-hands red-crescent logo of the UGTT, the General Union of Tunisian Workers which had brought us here.
Two young women and three young men were killed by police bullets in these streets."The tragic force of this uprising belongs to all humanity . That's why we gave our kids. Your visit shows that the revolution continues, it isn't just for Regueb and it doesn't stop there. In this little hall you see pictures of martyrs of 1952 , people from here who died in the anti-colonial struggle; then you see our hand-painted Palestinian banner. This small hall is part of our daily life, home for our activists whether from Palestine or Regueb.'
The trade unionists spoke beneath portraits of past labour heroes, while over the ceiling and walls were dotted far more recent images, CGI-inspired by the Palestinian intifada and increasingly the Tunisians' own. When young people left the meeting it was only to go outside and sing 'songs of the revolution'. We came out to find them under a magnificent photocollage of their lost friends, joined by Senegalese guest Cheikh Tidiane Dieye to perform a scurrilous number about the kleptocrats of the old regime.
As we walked out through Regueb an elderly woman in traditional dress came up, embraced me,and asked me to stay. She was speaking Arabic but we understood each other. So she saw that now - with a jolt - we all had to get on the bus again. It is my final memory of the unique political space in Regueb, 'the land of free people' where every single person seems to be finding a new voice.
It came as no surprise to hear that one week later Regueb's citizens came together and created a new town council to represent them in this dangerous gap between the fall of the old dictatorship in January and contested new elections in July. Nor to see pictures on You Tube of Regueb women from all ages and backgrounds filling their streets at the start of the Arab Spring,under banners spelling 'Je suis Femme, ne touche pas ma Liberte'.
But what could we do as solidarity visitors? All sorts of ideas and actions have already started and can be seen and joined through the links below. It took another guest from Dakar, Demba Moussa Dembele, to add 'We witnessed'. This is what the people we met are expecting from us: ' a proof that you care about the Tunisian revolution and the weaponless people who faced a criminal dictatorship, and sacrificed their lives and were injured, so that we can raise our voices today and say what we think should be said.'
These are the words of Mohamed Salah Abidi, whose son Shadi was at the heart of the 'internet revolution' in Regueb and was disabled by bullets from a police sniper.
Those of us who visited from Europe have another obligation, to keep the gates of the fortress open. Leading trade unionist Alessandra Mecozzi from the radical Italian union, FIOM told our hosts in Regueb: 'We thank you and have great, great trust in you. We'll push our governments to freeze bank accounts and repatriate the money stolen from you. We don't want a closed Europe - we're ashamed of our government saying it wants to deport young Tunisians. Europe must welcome all these people.'
Here are some of the voices of the Tunisian revolution. We must keep our ears open as well as our borders.
...AND NOW A MESSAGE FROM REGUEB
People from Regueb who know that you are doing a lot for their cause would like you to write something in one or several papers in London.
Here is the news:
On Tuesday morning a group of the representatives of the inhabitants of Regueb attended a meeting in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid. Several ministers supervised the meeting ( the Ministers of Regional Development, of Health, of Social Affairs, Higher Education...)
Given the fact that not one developmental project, or health or industrial project, is being brought to the town of Regueb, the representatives have called for a popular peaceful demonstration in the streets of the town followed by an information meeting .
The inhabitants decided that their town will be independent from the governorate of Sidi Bouzid till the government satisfies the urgent needs of the area:
- A regional hospital for the population of 7,3000;
- A local covered market square for the fruits and vegetables produced in Regueb;
- The removal from power of all the groups of people connected to the regime of Ben Ali.
You can read more of Amanda Sebestyen's dispatches from Tunisia in RED PEPPER magazine.
Brent Trades Union Council has invited a speaker from Tunisia to its meeting tomorrow night, WEDNESDAY, May 25 at Willesden Trades and Labour Hall, 375 Willesden High Road, NW10 2JR. 7.30pm