Half a Revolution

Jonathan Steele

It felt like the finale of Fidelio, a crowd of prisoners staggering into the sunlight, free at last, their voices rising triumphantly in ‘Hail to the Day’. We were in a conference hall in Tunis, packed with close to 2000 people, with every seat taken and dozens standing in the aisles, singing nationalist songs to the accompaniment of an electric organ on the stage. Some members of the crowd had only just emerged from jail. Many had returned from exile. Tears ran down people’s cheeks as a speaker came to the podium between songs to praise and commemorate those who had died in the dictator’s prisons as a result of torture. Shouts of defiance followed when he called for the release of those still behind bars: ‘The martyrs gave their lives, their families gave years of suffering.’ The crowd represented a cross-section of the courageous minority who had opposed the Tunisian dictatorship long before the street protests this year. Some were secular, others Islamists. The man beside me introduced himself as a leftist. Behind us were several rows of women in hijab, hailed by one speaker as mothers of men still in prison or ex-prisoners themselves. The crowd rose to salute them. ‘We have completed half the revolution. Now we must complete the rest of it,’ announced Mohammed Nouri, president of Liberty and Equity, the organisation that had arranged the meeting. There were frequent shouts of ‘Thawra Mubarakeh’ (‘Blessed Revolution’). ‘We don’t like the name Jasmine Revolution which Western journalists gave it – too passive, too perfumed,’ my neighbour whispered.

It’s been almost two months since Zine Abidine Ben-Ali’s regime was toppled, and families and friends are being reunited after years, sometimes decades, of separation. They exchange stories of grotesque hardship and torture in prison. Even in exile, Ben-Ali’s opponents were never safe, thanks to the pressure he put on European governments not to give asylum to opponents of his regime and his use of Interpol warrants to have them arrested and extradited on spurious allegations of terrorism. I was listening to Chaker Chourfi, a former prisoner, say that ‘the dictator has fallen but not the dictatorship,’ when in walked Mohamed Ali Harrath, the founder and chief executive officer of the Islam Channel, the UK-based TV station that is watched by British Muslims more than any other channel. He had just arrived from London after 21 years of exile. Chourfi was overwhelmed. ‘We were in the same cell,’ Mohamed Ali told us, ‘if you can call it a cell when it held 165 people in a space meant for 30, and only had one toilet. We joked that when we got out we’d build a house with four toilets and one room, just to enjoy the opposite. But it was an intellectual place. A journalist gave us a daily briefing. A doctor gave us lectures. We developed a culture of equality. Whenever food arrived from someone’s family, it was shared out equally. We built our lives together. It was the best time of my life.’

Some Western analysts have suggested that Tunis and Egypt will turn into North African versions of post-revolutionary Iran, if the Muslim Brotherhood and its Tunisian counterpart, Nahda, or the Renaissance Party, come to power. Chourfi and Ali admit they used to be admirers of Iran. Ali did his student dissertation on Marx, and when the Iranian Revolution happened he and his friends felt enormous excitement. ‘Iran was the example of revolutionary Islam building a state. We were impressed by its values of social justice without knowing the theology behind it.’

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