By Christine Wenzel
17 November 2005. Freedom of speech and press, freedom of association, freeing political prisoners - this is not asked for much, it is a minimum standard for a working democracy. Is it? Apparently it is too much to ask for in a regime such as Tunisia. What we experience these days is just the tip of the ice berg: Eight opposition leaders were so desperate in their situation to start a hunger strike on 18 October - that's about 30 days ago - to call for help and international support and attention. The situation is serious. One of the strikers fainted and was brought to hospital last Monday at the very hour, when some German civil society representatives had a chance to visit the scene and speak to the people.
The leader of the Tunisian Association of Magistrates (ATM) sits down with us. His body is so weak, but his mind is very focussed. His wife brings a small glas of mint tea, her face looks worried and confident at the same time. It is evening time, we are in the city of Tunis in some dark side street. Women from the Tunisian Democratic Women Association took us here in two different cars going different loop ways, since their own event right that afternoon was heavily disturbed and blocked by Tunisian secret service and police. Tunisian civil society activists here are used to this kind of daily procedure, which is shocking, scaring and not imaginable for most people coming from a democratic free country.
So we sit down with the strikers. Lots of supporters, family and friends run around in the location, which is filled with a busy atmosphere. The TV is turned on in case there might be a report on the strike. By leaning out of the window people monitor and check activities on the street regularly. Secret service everywhere: On the corner, in the house on the other side of the street, in the house. We can see them, they can see us. "We live with them and they live with us."
The ATM leader, a lawyer, calmly describes the harassment he has been suffering for decades. It got worse after a protest letter he wrote to the president four years ago, calling for free justice. Oppression started right away: He was hindered to work, his clients were harassed, he didn't get paid anymore, and his phone was permanently observed or switched off. Then the ATM leader leaves us, he needs some rest in one of the rooms in his former office, where the strikers put up eight beds provisorily. As much as they all need attention, dialogue and exchange, it's also very exhausting for the men.
The leader of the Journalist Union continues in perfect English. He reports that they could not hold conferences, neither could they enter their headquarters. The head of the communist party describes the everyday obstacles he and his colleagues had to face: They are not allowed to assemble, Internet websites of the opposition parties are blocked, they are never present on TV, radio or in the newspapers, they are not allowed to do commercials for their political program, their candidates' lists have been invalidated, and they see themselves as nothing more but pseudo democratic decoration for the regime. All of the strikers have been in jail, some for up to ten years. They suffer so much, but the impressive intellectual strength remains.
When they started the strike, they knew in advance that the government would not react. Instead they hoped for the international community - especially civil society - to react and support them. Actually this seems to work out. Yesterday, Shirin Ebadi, the nobel price winner and summit opening speaker for civil society, asked for a strong sign of solidarity towards these personalities during a press conference in the office of the Tunisian Human Rights League. It also seems that supporters have started a solidarity hunger strike in front of the German Foreign Office in Berlin.
Today, one day later, international civil society representatives on WSIS started to gather around the hunger strike venue in Tunis. People are asked to come and express their support at any time at all in the coming days. The support actually has produced some results: Today, the demonstrations of solidarity in front of the building were not stopped or hindered by Tunisian police.
When asked what has to happen to end the strike, somebody replied with a smile: "We aimed for international support and recognition and I feel the strike might be over soon."