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.
LRB 17 March 2011 | PDF Download