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.’

Ali was later jailed for subversion and after his release in the mid-1980s borrowed money from his parents, telling them he wanted to study in France. Instead, he travelled by bus from Paris through Italy, Yugoslavia and Turkey to Tehran. He found the reality of life under the revolution deeply disappointing. The tipping point came when he heard an Iranian friend say he had decided to stay clear of politics because he ‘wanted to keep his head on his shoulders, and certainly not have it taken off in the name of God’. On returning to Tunis, Ali warned his friends not to romanticise what had become a theocratic dictatorship. Chourfi had also been an enthusiast until he got himself invited to Iran in 1990 for the first anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. As a Sunni, he was intrigued by the writing of the ‘red Shia’ intellectual Ali Shariati, who stood for a classless society and against dictatorship and died mysteriously before the Iranian Revolution. In Tehran he was amazed to discover that Shariati’s works were banned. ‘I asked people: “Is there a leftist party?” “Is there any independent TV or radio?” “Is there a Sunni mosque?” The answer was no, no, no. I was shocked.’

It struck me how little we knew in Britain of Tunisian dissent. I wondered whether the French media were any better or whether they also unthinkingly accepted the official image of Tunisia as the most advanced Arab country, modern, peaceful and democratic, unlike its wild neighbours, Libya and Algeria. Tunisia’s reputation was based on its high literacy rate and its apparent political stability, as well as the degree of female emancipation. The regime tried to portray itself as an Arab Turkey, with a large number of unveiled women in Parliament and other public positions. Polygamy had long been banned. Abortion was legal. Marriage required the woman’s consent. The fact that there had been a massive clampdown on Islamists 20 years ago, even before the Algerian military clampdown, wasn’t mentioned or, if foreigners raised it, explained away as a necessity.

Samira Chaouachi was one of those front-of-house women, elegant and articulate. An MP from the Popular Union Party, one of eight small parties that Ben-Ali allowed to take part in elections, though never to do well, she had the grace to meet us though she was full of embarrassment and regret. ‘Maybe it’s hard to convince people that we didn’t do anything wrong,’ she said. ‘It was a matter of judgment. Maybe we took some bad decisions but we tried to maintain our independence. We had a narrow space of freedom, and we used it. We always criticised the government for its unfair trials of opponents. But,’ she added defensively, ‘the media did not cover what we said.’ Before a revolution, minor parties that go along with a dictatorship are treated as collaborators. Afterwards, they are lucky to be ignored. Chaouachi acknowledged some guilt. ‘We are responsible in part for excluding the Islamists. Algeria’s experience is important. We too failed to recruit young people so they went over to the Islamists instead.’ She had learned the lesson now, she said. The revolution had changed everything. There was a real sense of freedom for the first time in her life.

In Turkey, the wearing of the hijab in public buildings, including schools and universities, is banned by the constitution, making it hard for the Islamist government to alter the provision. A similar ban in Tunisia would be more easily repealed: it derives from a law passed in 1981, when the government first turned on the Islamist movements. Chaouachi expressed anxiety about the possibility. ‘As a woman, I’m concerned that Nahda will take away what women have gained. They say they won’t reverse those gains but I’m wary of their statements. Yet I know that after 14 January’ – the day of the Blessed Revolution – ‘it’s illogical and unacceptable to exclude them.’ Using the law to ban the hijab was wrong, she now felt, though she still saw it as a symbol of women’s oppression.

Her last p0int would be contested by the hundreds of young hijab-wearing women who expressed their worries about the future of the revolution by coming to demonstrate in Casbah Square, outside the prime minister’s office, at the end of February and calling on him to resign. Almost half the protesters were women. There were leftists among them but the majority, as during the January protests, were moderate Islamists – open-minded, Facebook-using and wedded to modernity. The mood was shared by their secular friends. At the sit-in in Casbah Square I spotted a young unveiled woman wearing a long black gown and a neatly pleated white ruff of the kind French lawyers wear. The outfit seemed out of place, but she explained that at least one lawyer attends every demonstration to ensure that human rights are not violated by either side – or at least that any violation is recorded. Was she a member of a political party? I asked. Yes, and you’ll be shocked if I tell you which one, she replied. This was a challenge and I ran various options through my mind as though I was on a TV game-show. ‘Give up,’ I said, in case I insulted her by picking the wrong one. ‘The Baath Party,’ she hissed, before adding: ‘The original one that stood for the dream of Arab unity. We started it up again with friends in the law faculty.’ As for the socialist element of the Baath Party, she was not sure how to define it. ‘To be a Marxist today means to question Marx,’ she said. ‘Any political party which closes the door to questions is no longer revolutionary. That’s why these demonstrations have no leaders and are self-disciplined. Everyone is equal.’

Where the Tunisian revolution goes from here is unclear. Three days of protests finally persuaded Mohamed Ghannouchi, who served for 12 years as prime minister under Ben-Ali, to resign on 27 February. Six other ministers resigned over the following days, including two leaders of opposition parties. The rest of the interim government is wobbling though it remains in place. Also still in place are the police thugs in the Interior Ministry who set upon the protesters at the end of February in a repeat of the violence they’d used during the January revolution. As tensions mount, 15 March is rapidly approaching, the deadline at which it was agreed that the interim government should come to an end.

The National Council for the Defence of the Revolution, a coalition of trade unions, leftist parties, Nahda, human rights groups and so on, wants to see a caretaker government of independent technocrats replace the present government, most of whose 22 ministers were supporters of the old ruling party and the traditional Tunis elite. They also want to change the composition of three committees set up after the revolution. One was meant to examine corruption under the Ben-Ali regime, but critics say some of its members are themselves corrupt. The second was to look at political and electoral reform, but doesn’t have representatives from all parties. The third committee was charged with drafting a new constitution, but its members are unelected. The National Council for the Defence of the Revolution thinks the best way forward is to hold national elections for a constituent assembly. Only when there is agreement on whether to have a parliamentary or presidential system should further elections take place. They fear that the old elite is rushing the country into early elections under the existing constitution before new or newly legalised political parties have time to organise.

The general view is that Nahda is the country’s biggest political power. The hijab-banners and secular fundamentalists are alarmed by this. Less militant secularists are cautiously relaxed. As Abdul Monahim, a secular human rights lawyer, put it, ‘the Islamists had more people in jail than any other party – that’s why they are strong.’ He was confident they would tolerate other points of view. ‘The Tunisian personality is very open-minded. The leading Islamist politicians have spent 20 to 25 years in exile in Europe. They’ve benefited from this. Nahda’s leader recently said alcohol would not be banned and there would be no compulsory dress code. This caused Tunisians to breathe a sigh of relief.’

‘We want to be part of an alliance of other parties and forces,’ Ali Larayedh, a member of the Nahda executive, insisted. ‘We want to make it visible to everyone that we’re not there to take control … Our emphasis is on democratic process.’ There were two things Tunisians, including Nahda supporters, would not sacrifice, he said: to live by the rules of modernity, and to remain faithful to their Arab identity and the values of Islam. There is a reason for Nahda’s caution. Although Tunisia is not a front-line state in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, outside powers are watching it closely: ‘If Nahda becomes the main force that controls the political game, this could add new problems rather than solve old ones. Tunisia cannot afford any extra pressure on people’s lifelines, given our fragile economy, weak trading position and huge debts.’

The revolution was sparked by economics as much as politics. Its mobilising power was the mass of unemployed graduates, estimated at a quarter of a million, many of them from poor cities in the interior. The country’s unemployment rate of 14 per cent masks a big discrepancy between the coast, where it’s 7 per cent, and the interior, where it’s 30 per cent. On the coast people normally find it easier to get seasonal work in tourism. But the January revolution and the continuing uncertainty on both its Libyan and Algerian flanks have seen a catastrophic drop in tourism, one of Tunisia’s main job and income-generators – though the main season usually starts in April and if there is stability by then many tourists may well return.

Rached Ghannouchi, Nahda’s veteran leader, is a serene figure who projects a gentle smile without parting his lips. He wears an ancient red fez and sits calmly with his hands folded in his lap. He places the revolution that allowed him to come home so unexpectedly in a broader context. ‘Tunisian society is civil. We don’t have many natural resources so people earn their money from their sweat. In Algeria they go to the mountains to defend themselves. In Tunisia we don’t have mountains so when people are oppressed we form our own mountain of mankind in the street.’

He praised young people for leading the uprising. ‘One generation is rebelling against another, especially in the interior. You know, there are two Tunisias, the coast and the interior. It was Ibn Khaldoun who discovered that cities usually get developed at the expense of the countryside. Then the countryside moves to the cities and changes them to the benefit of the countryside. But after three generations the migrants from the countryside become the new elite and the cycle starts again. This revolution won’t stop until young people see equality and stability between all areas.’

The fact that Tunisia was the first Arab nation to topple its dictator was tremendous. ‘Tunisia is small and we are so proud we showed everyone else the way. In Sufism it says that God puts his power into the weakest parts of his creation.’ He grinned. But he added that it was good that the Egyptian revolution had followed since it gave Tunisia some protection. The bad news was that in spite of favourable coverage when huge crowds welcomed him at the airport on 30 January, the mainstream media now ignored Nahda or distorted its message. Would Nahda get round this by using the mosques to get its point across? No way, he replied. ‘At prayers last Friday a group of young people spotted me at the al-Zeitouna mosque, and asked me about politics. I told them the mosque is not a place for political debate.’ The good news is that the army has no official role in the transition, as it does in Egypt; nor does it have the status that comes from having defended national territory in a recent war. It intervened in January to remove Ben-Ali, not to protect him, and took no part in suppressing the protests at the end of February. The hope must be that it does not spoil this record if the interim government digs in and major new protests erupt.

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