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A civilised revolution

Lana Asfour reports from Tunis, the city where it all began.

For more than two weeks after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's repressive 23-year regime was toppled and replaced by an interim government in mid-January, protests continued on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis and in front of the government offices in the Kasbah, where the ministry of finance had been renamed - using a spray can - the "ministry of thieves". Demonstrators were calling for the remaining members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), Ben Ali's political party, to leave the government.

One group had walked all the way from Sidi Bouzid, the home town of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose suicide had sparked the revolution. The protests succeeded and almost all of the old RCD members were removed.

Now, discussions have shifted to what Tunisia will look like after the elections, expected to be held in a few months' time. Some want the army's chief of staff, General Rachid Ammar, to play a role: when Ben Ali ordered the army to shoot at the protesters, Ammar chose to disobey and took the people's side.

I asked Selmi Taoufik, a young man who works in France, whom he wanted to see in power and he voiced an opinion that I often come across: "I don't know yet. I have to see what the person is like first, then I'll decide."

Most Tunisians do not like religious conservatism and many say that they are worried about an Islamist resurgence. Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist al-Nahda party, outlawed under Ben Ali, has returned to Tunis after more than 20 years in exile. He was welcomed by several thousand supporters at the airport, though a few came to protest against him.

Whatever the political landscape will look like in six months, it is clear that the hard work is just beginning. Tunisia has to address institutional corruption and learn how to exercise democracy in all areas of life. Gangs have been frightening people on the streets and in schools - most likely unemployed youths paid by old regime members to spread chaos in the nascent democracy. Happily, the new interior minister is overhauling the security services.

Back on the tree-lined Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the mood is exuberant. People are proud of what they have achieved and delighted to be able to speak freely without threat of arrest and torture. Some are here to sit on café terraces or to shop, but almost everyone you meet is indulging in open debate.

Strangers spontaneously group and discuss the interim government, what it should do and how the democratic process should unfold. Young and old - men and women - stand together and argue.

What is reassuring about this revolution is that there is little desire for vengeance against those who had ties to the RCD. Tunisia, which can boast a highly educated population and equal rights for women, has conducted a very civilised revolution.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

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Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide