The great hall in Carthage Palace was teeming with guests for a reception hosted by the new Tunisian president on the eve of the first anniversary of the revolution. Despite the best efforts of the state protocol corps to keep the occasion formal, an unusual spirit pervaded the extravagant Andalusian-style hall.
The huge palace, located at the foot of a fortified mountain in Tunis, was not accustomed to this odd mixture of invitees. Sitting in the middle of the main table was President Moncef Marzouki, who was, one year ago, an exiled opposition figure. Most Arab regimes deemed him a persona non grata to avoid the wrath of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime.
On his right was the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, who was imprisoned for 16 years after an alleged coup in 1992; a decade of that was spent in solitary confinement. Also in attendance was Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the moderate Islamist Nahdah party, who was previously sentenced to death and exiled for two decades. He shakes the hands of guests from across the Arab world in his capacity as the head of the winning party in the country's first democratic elections on 27 October.
The guests are an eclectic mix of presidents, ministers, Arab ambassadors, and beside them, political leaders and opposition figures. Our Arab region has never witnessed such a gathering in one place.
The driver who took me to the dinner said that he accompanied the deposed president on his final journey from the palace to his aircraft, bound for Saudi Arabia, last January. He recalled how Ben Ali was visibly shocked and traumatised; yet he hoped to return. When Ben Ali left, with him went the fear, impotence and disillusionment which dominated the Arab soul for many decades.
Last year's revolution disposed of Ben Ali in a way that was wholly unexpected. The former president, in his seventies, had been re-elected for a fifth term just one year earlier. The banned opposition was dispersed between prison and exile. The licensed parties were wallowing in their divisions and ineffectiveness. And the elite had grown accustomed to the low political standards set for them. Meanwhile, the West aided the regime; an erstwhile ally in what was called the "war against terror".
Through the mass media, the Tunisian regime managed to conceal the true picture of its rule, employing bribes and buying loyalty. When it was unable to do that, it put obstacles before TV crews and correspondents. And if that failed, it opposed and harassed them.
When I was its director-general, Al Jazeera was banned from operating in Tunisia. The primary duty of any ambassador in Doha, where the network is based, was to protest against every news item, comment or guest who criticized the Tunisian regime. If the ambassador failed, a minister intervened and perhaps the president. When Al Jazeera hosted a number of Tunisian opposition leaders as part of its coverage of the presidential elections in 2009, the Tunisian government decided to close its embassy in Doha and launched a sinister attack on Al Jazeera, which crossed all bounds.
The paradigm which the Arab regimes established in their relationship with the traditional opposition was always in favor of the authorities. This led the regimes to degrade their people and they plotted to remain in power without any shame. But something began to form outside the framework that the regimes had designed. The social networks which opened channels before the Arab youth gave them the means to contact each other and the wider world. Quietly, they began to expound new political visions.
By their very nature, the networks are democratic and are not in need of long-standing party membership cards or organisational rank. Innovation was afforded to everyone without need for planning committees or research centres. Equally, the networks adopted initiatives instantly, without bureaucracy.
The challenge which the Arab Spring faces today, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, is how to maintain the spirit which the youth created during the revolution. They must reduce centralisation. They must become more transparent in their decision-making, more tolerant of criticism and open to new ideas.
The Arab Spring is still in its formative stages. It started a process of transition that will take a long time and embrace all aspects of our reality. We must welcome this change and accept it with courage and patience. This is the only way for the Arab world to advance. There is nothing worse than despotism and repression whilst corrupting minds and societies.
On the first anniversary of Ben Ali's overthrow, the Tunisian masses gathered in the capital to affirm a future different from the past. There is a message here for the new political elite which came to the Carthage Palace. High walls are no longer capable of protecting those who betray the hopes of the people.