27 February, 2011 — Morning Star
The central square of Tunis is dominated by a vast open space with a triumphal monument in the centre.
Nearby, the Ottoman-era administrative buildings house the Ministry of Finance and the prime minister’s office.
In front of them a beautiful tree-lined space is filled with protesters and a detachment of army tanks and armoured cars.
The protesters, mainly young people, have occupied the square and encircled the army and every time an attempt is made to move a tank out I see them surround it, lie down in front and argue fiercely with the soldiers to stay put.
Anywhere else in the world this would be seen as bizarre, but in the days of tumult, chaos and jubilation since the fall of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, such extraordinary scenes have become almost normal.
The army is effectively being held hostage in a bid to keep the hundreds of riot police with their water cannons and tear gas away.
The purpose of the occupation is to demand the removal of the interim government, and in particular its dubious ministers.
Seventeen of the 22 are members of the discredited ruling party, and the police force is still run by the same brutal chiefs who tortured and jailed so many people in the decades of Ben Ali rule.
It was on January 14 that the unthinkable happened – and Ben Ali’s tyrannical regime collapsed.
Faced with massive and unrelenting demonstrations, mutiny in the army and increasing isolation, he and his family were forced to flee in four helicopters bound for Malta.
From there he initially headed to exile in France, but his plane was prevented from landing in Paris by the French authorities, so he headed to Jeddah, where he was welcomed by the king of Saudi Arabia.
This was the first peak of the revolutionary process – removal of the head of state.
But Ben Ali was merely the first of the Middle Eastern emperors to be seen to have no clothes.
The uprising spread and continues spreading as president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was toppled and now huge protests in Yemen and the bloody battles in Libya threaten the tyrants in charge there.
Tunisia, as the first regime to fall in the ongoing Arab awakening, offers pointers to the future of the whole region.
And so my first port of call on visiting the country is a joyous rally celebrating the release of prisoners.
Poor families pack into the opulent and formerly exclusive Palais de Conference to listen to the speeches of recently released prisoners.
There is elation but also anger that, although there is supposed to be a general amnesty, 3,000 are supposedly still being held.
Amid a sea of Tunisian, Egyptian and Palestinian flags on prominent display, two ex-prisoners, Shakar Choulifri and Mohammed Ali of the London-based Islam Channel, meet for the first time in a moving and poignant scene.
They describe the awful conditions of their imprisonment and how they organised the political prisoners into education and support groups.
While they were behind bars, Ben Ali received an Italian human rights award.
Doubtless many more accounts of brutality, bravery, injustice and resistance to injustice will emerge in coming weeks, but despite the deep scars left by the dictator’s reign, popular peaceful action on the streets is the hallmark of Tunisian protest.
Many of those who address the crowd refer to the unity of Arab peoples, calling to mind the pan-Arab movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Yet the Tunisian people fear that, having won a revolution, they are having it stolen from them from behind closed doors by a combination of the old regime and foreign governments who want to keep Tunisia firmly in the Western camp.
The interim government claims it is opening the books on the regime and to assist this narrative they show vast quantities of international currency in cash that was found in the president’s palace.
The image of this new dawn is spoiled by the official who is showing this off wearing a gold Rolex watch worth many thousands of dollars.
And not forgotten are the arms sales, French endorsement – Chirac in 1990 said Ben Ali was ‘the best model for the Arab world’ – and more recently former MI5 head Pauline Neville Jones describing the dictator as ‘our ally in the war on terror.’
In more detailed discussions with people from al-Nahda Party, the Communist Party and the UGT union, common ground is declared on the need for a complete clearout of government, a new constitution and a strengthened parliamentary system with a much weaker presidency.
There is also complete agreement on the vital necessity of tracing the missing millions in secretive bank accounts at tax havens around the world.
A packed press conference held by the Tunisian Journalists Union is opened by the iconic and brave lawyer Radia Nasradoui, who presents a new account of torture in Tunisia, describing supposed anti-terror laws as in reality ‘a licence to torture.’
The poor who marched from the south to occupy and bring such huge change to Tunis represent the victims of autocracy and neoliberal economics.
The common thread within the whole north African and Middle Eastern region is massive unemployment, despotic governments and routine abuse of any opponents.
And this is linked with the adoption of free-market economics and a ready flow from the West of highly sophisticated weaponry and public control equipment.
In the 19th century it was proximity to trade routes and the importance of the Suez canal that obsessed the European imperialists with occupation and political control.
As the world entered the age of oil, the political interference continued, albeit for different reasons – oil is the lifeblood of European, north American and far-eastern economies.
The ‘great and the good’ of Western society fawned at the feet of unsavoury rulers, undermining all norms of human rights and justice for millions of ordinary people.
But now they have been caught on the back foot. Western think tanks and governments were surprised at the size of the north African protests, and then their success.
Since then they have been running very hard to keep up with the events – and failing badly.
Mubarak was content for Egypt to be a stopping off point on the torture flights from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay.
US President Barack Obama supported the Egyptian dictator for a long time and Blair claimed he ‘was a force for good’ only days before he was finally forced to resign.
Western leaders, having cut huge deals with Muammar Gaddafi for arms and oil, control of migration and building contracts without any human rights conditions, now find themselves forced to condemn the appalling violence of the dying Libyan regime as hundreds die in the streets protesting against an iron-fisted government.
In Bahrain, the home of the US Fifth Fleet, the contradictions play out more obviously as a king with near absolute power, excepting a thin parliamentary veneer, tries to cling on.
The Western media, particularly the BBC and CNN, report these momentous events through the prism of Western self-interest and the problems of tourists or ex-patriot workers.
They completely miss the point – the verve, excitement and determination to achieve political liberation.
It was not Western forces that brought about the changes in Tunisia and Egypt or are struggling to overturn injustice in Libya, Yemen or Bahrain.
The former colonial masters are masters no more.
The people of north Africa and the Middle East are well aware of the European and US origins of the guns, planes, tanks and tear gas that have been used to maim and kill.
Europe and north America are not seen as solutions but as part of the problem.
This decisive self-realisation stretches well beyond national borders, rekindling Arab unity and support for Palestinian people.
And so the second peak of the revolution comes into view – the development of a society that delivers the dream of independence, human rights and dignity.
The dynamism, activism and suffering of those who have brought it thus far deserve no lesser reward.
Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North.