Tunisia: brief encounters, Part 1

The author, who travelled to Tunisia last April, recorded her multicultural experiences at a time of revolution to share, as requested, with the outside world. In Part Two, she has kept in touch with some of the young people in the south to update us on the grim realities of their ongoing struggle as the October elections approach.

Amanda Sebestyen
20 September 2011

“Every single moment of this revolution has been full of emotions. Sometimes glorious, other times complicated, sometimes full of sadness because you've lost someone - shot -in front of your eyes.” Ramy Sghayer was talking to a delegation from the World Social Forum which visited Tunisia last April, one of those youth organisers in Tunisia who always made time for foreign visitors, explaining the successive waves of protest needed to dislodge not only the old dictator Zine Ben Ali, but a whole structure of dictatorship and the systems that shored it up internationally.


The word on the tortoise's shell is REVOLUTION in Arabic, written with the red and white colours of the Tunisian flag.

"Our revolution spreads far beyond the borders of Tunisia", he continued:

"It is a revolution for dignity and freedom in which every single human being is affected. We flew the Egyptian flag for Tahrir, and danced in the streets when Mubarak fell. We're waiting for Libya, watching Yemen and Syria. It's not only Tunisia's struggle but the struggle of the whole South under colonialism. I also joined a team at Ras Ajdir frontier camp, helping the refugees from Libya. I went with my friend Samir from Togo, and we had the chance to serve food, but sometimes felt it was even more important to listen and understand them. I'm co-ordinator of the youth commission for Amnesty, but I didn't go there officially but as a human rights defender and activist.”

When I mentioned to Ramy my dismay at seeing bread and water sold at double the normal prices inside these refugee camps, he explained that the neighbouring border town, Ben Guerdane, had always made a living by smuggling to and from Libya, and was now grabbing back some lost revenue. “But”, he added “many of my own friends are working here as volunteers without asking for a thing except somewhere to stay, living on a sandwich, just helping on principle”. On my own visit to the camp, UNHCR officials confirmed the unprecedented generosity not only of their 200 Tunisian volunteers, but the daily relief trips from ordinary people and the unusual levels of co-operation in keeping the camp safe and running the hospital.


UNCHR’s refugee camp in Ras Ajdir Tunisia. Cagil M Kasapoglu/Demotix image. All rights reserved.

Two days later the people of Ben Guerdane taught us all a lesson by holding a demonstration of their own, demanding their right to be considered for jobs in the camp and to help the refugees themselves. Their offer was accepted - one example of ways that the new wave of direct action includes entirely unexpected groups of people. It was to be the first of several such lessons.

I heard that in a small town called Manouba, Ben Ali's secret forces - using tactics echoed by Mubarak's agents in later weeks - had tried to stir up violence between Muslims and Christians. The aim was both to keep people disunited and to create 'disorder' which the regime can then claim to be quelling. Agents from out of town attacked a church and killed a Polish priest. Immediately the young people in the nearby resort of Sousse, who were forming nightly patrols to protect their town, decided to form a ring around its synagogue and defend it. They realised instantly that, 'It will be the Jews who get attacked next time', and they weren't having their revolution destroyed by hatred.

The government of Israel's first response to the Jasmine Revolution, on the other hand, was to beg Tunisia's Jews to emigrate. Benjamin Netanyahu even set up a special fund for them to be 'gathered in'. The offer was resoundingly refused by Tunisian Jews across the spectrum. Professor Sophie Bessis - feminist, historian, Unesco and Unicef officer and now Secretary of the International Federation of Human Rights - wrote an open letter in the Tunisian press repudiating the “ill-intentioned” attempt to separate Jews from other Tunisians. So did the Rabbi on the island of Djerba where most of the remaining Jews live; both intellectuals and traditionalists supporting the democratic revolution.

Bessis has been nominated for the new 'high commission' preparing for elections to a Constituent Assembly to replace the old rigged and packed one Tunisians have had to endure till now. 'Her membership has a symbolic meaning: democratic Tunisia wants to say that all commission members are citizens regardless of religious origin. This disturbs those who believed that Jews could never be at home in any Arab country. Bessis acknowledged that there was indeed antisemitism in Tunisia, as in other countries, “A few dozen fanatics have to be fought, like all inciters of hate. We also hope that the flourishing anti-Arab racism in Israel will be tackled vigorously.” '

Interviewed in Jeune Afrique, the paper which she edited for many years, she added: “I am immensely happy with what has happened in Tunisia, which is my country. We've seen a real liberation. Whatever happens tomorrow, this liberation will make history because for the first time in the Arab world a people stood up, not to replace one leader with another but to replace an authoritarian regime with a democratic one. The Tunisians have eliminated the very concept of 'the leader', in favour of democracy.”


Peaceful protest in Tunisia. Amine Landoulsi/Demotix image. All rights reserved.

Tunisia's Jews have often been a source of pride but frequently for achievements overseas. Gisele Halimi, the human rights lawyer and feminist, founded the group Choisir in 1971, which achieved legal contraception and abortion in France within three years; she defended Algerian liberation fighters, working closely with Simone de Beauvoir. Earlier generations like Albert Bessis, father of Sophie and one of the leading figures of the anticolonial struggle, did stay in the country. Georges Adda, who died in 2008, was the Tunisian communist leader, trade unionist and passionate supporter of the Palestinians who, “always described himself as an Antizionist Tunisian Jew”.

When I visited this Spring, hosted by the General Union of Tunisian Workers and the Tunisian League of Human Rights, I and my fellow guest Rita Freire from Brazil's online news network Ciranda walked along the grand avenues of Tunis, moving from markets of crowded shoppers to equally crowded political discussions swirling into different small groups and coming together again. One of the Tunisians said to us then: ''We talk, we discuss things publicly for the first time in our lives, and in the end the bad gets driven out and the good comes to the top.”

As the defence of the synagogue in Sousse shows, the safety of Jews inside Tunisia has become one touchstone for the democratic revolution. As with the rights of women, the fight to end political impunity and prosecute those who killed unarmed demonstrators, the desperate need for employment, this issue too has sparked off multitudinous debates and a real sense that talking is a political good in itself.

Here is a sample of some of the online discussion about Jews in Tunisia after Netanyahu made his bid to bring them to Israel:

“An exceptional grant of 2000 euros extra for each immigrant who comes to Israel from Tunisia! At a moment when Tunisians are talking more than ever about secularism, tolerance and freedom of belief, the Israeli government is trying by any means possible to frighten Jewish Tunisians and get them to leave their country. Netanyahu is trying to manipulate Tunisians with arguments about insecurity and predictions that '"regime change in Tunisia following the Jasmine Revolution will lead to Islamisation and a rise in antisemitism'". The Israeli government is making Tunisian Jews an offer they can't refuse. Subsidised apartments and tax waivers are part of the package for every immigrant - so the minister decided to buy Tunisians with a special grant of 2,000 a head!”

“We're all Tunisians. I'm Muslim and I buy my pastries from Mr Pascale who's Jewish. Leave us in peace, we love our Tunisian Jews, they're part of our heritage and we're proud of them. The Israelis are jealous of our Tunisian Jews, they have done so well as artists and politicians in Europe. If anyone Jewish reads this, please comment and send me your contact details.”

“In response to the government of Israel I want to say that the most unstable country is certainly Israel and not Tunisia. I also ask our brother Tunisian Jews in Israel to come back to their roots in Tunisia.”

“You're too soft! Don't you know what's going on? Less than a month after the fall of Ben Ali, jihadists with black banners were howling outside the Grand Synagogue in Tunis: 'Remember you Jews, Mohamed's army will come back to smite you"'.

“The demonstration in front of the synagogue was held by Islamists as you say, and as far as I know Tunisians are along way from being religious extremists. This was a minority which just wanted to have a ruck”

“As the daughter and granddaughter of Tunisian Jews, I can remember being excluded and persecuted under past Tunisian regimes. I know about pogroms 50 years ago under the former leader, Habib Bourguiba; I saw my uncle chased out, arriving in Paris holding his two little children, with all his goods confiscated by the Tunisian regime. If the state of Israel is offering them a more substantial sum it is because like the Iraqi, Egyptian and Yemeni Jews they will have to arrive with nothing, even though Jews were living in all those countries before the Arab conquest in the 7th century.”

“I am Tunisian and want to point out that if you look properly at the videos of the antisemitic demo you can see that these aren't even Islamists. They don't have either the clothes or the rhetoric. They are just agents provocateurs from the old dictator's RCD party who want to pass on the message: 'You got rid of Ben Ali, so now you're going to get the beardies.' Look in Facebook, it clearly identifies one of these 'Islamists' as a school caretaker, well known as an RCD hack. This is a vain attempt by old RCDers to set Tunisians against each other but it won't work.”

“Jewish Tunisians are Tunisians first, most prefer to stay where their families have always lived, the only ones who are leaving are those who have been suffering in the economic crisis or who have family members in France. It is extremely rare for anyone to go to Israel, apart from the hyper-religious or those who believe in the Zionist Eldorado”...

Cue for a furious riposte, and so the posts go on, as Tunisians enjoy the thrill of political discussion.

"Sixty percent of Tunisians have told a poll that they want to be involved in politics! Before, it was only football” said Fabio, an Italian who had lived in Tunisia for eight years and wanted to start up a new kind of travel, not insulating visitors in zones touristiques but taking them to meet people and see 'the real Tunisia' - that Tunisie profonde where the revolutions began.


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