Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Police and the people - the Oscars

No Return! waiting at the Libyan Border

I thought that I'd consider which Country had done the most in various departments, such as heavy policing, strength of voice from the people, etc., etc. I thought about this because of the events of yesterday. In short, it seems that political dialogue between our convoy leaders - George Galloway since he's travelling with us at the moment - and the Tunisian Government, have broken down, leading to a charade of a day, which I'll tell you about shortly. Before doing that, though, I want to make clear that I have very little knowledge of the governments of North Africa, and cannot do the research since I don't get enough time on the Internet. That's why I thought that I'd have an Oscar award for the various categories of behaviour we've experienced here.
First Yesterday: It seems that we have arranged with the Libyans that we will enter Libya today, Saturday, at 8am, so George and co wanted us camped near the border in our vans ready to move as a sweetly trained flock of homing pigeons at the rising of the sun. They were afraid that if they accepted the Tunisian's offer of accommodation, they would not be able to get us out of bed in time. The question is, essentially, do we get accommodation because they're nice, or because they want to control us? That's not all. From Gabes, it is only about 100 kilometers to the border, but there is one large town on the way, 33k from the border, that the road went through without alternative. Friday being the day of the Major Muslim prayer, and 'holiday' (Muslim's don't actually get a day off in the Quran, I'm told by Munir - no wonder the Israelis wanted to employ Palestinians before the first Intifada) it was said that the Government didn't want us to stop in the town for those Friday prayers, in case the people got too excited(?!), but it was also said that they would try to get us through the town quickly so that they could push us over the border and out of the way.
At this point I probably need to tell you that there was - allegedly - an opposition rally organised in Sfax, a town not far from Gabes, at which we, or at least George was to be the guest of honour. A couple of people who went up to this event were arrested and have gone into Libya on their release 'for their own safety'. None of this is verified, and the leadership will not talk about anything, but there is no doubt that there is an anti- government agenda being disseminated in the convoy, which some say is the agenda of the Respect Party, and others that it is a Human Rights agenda, because the Government is so dictatorial. In the official Blog of the trip I saw a post in which someone described the Tunisian Police presence at the border as overwhelming and intimidating, and described onlookers as being all of a certain age and obviously bussed to wave at us. This is so far off my experience that I thought that I would award these Oscars, so here they are:
Most efficient Police (Most Forceful): Algeria
Most effective (and entertaining) motorcycle outriders: Algeria, by a distance. the shabbily dressed army outriders of Tunisia don't compare, and I can't remember the Moroccans. The Algerians performed like circus stars, and deserve an Oscar.
Least effective Secret Police: Tunisia. Well I saw many, whereas I didn't really notice them elsewhere, although I know they were there. The photo of the Fez, below, shows the local head man in that Moroccan town.
Most Demonstrative Crowds: Morocco, until the last night in Tunisia, and the first night in Algeria, which were wild. But only in Morocco did almost every individual give us a hearty wave even if we didn't wave first. In Algiers, even crowds sometimes seemed distant, reserved, detached. And in the high plains areas the people were much more likely to ignore us.
Most sincere crowds: You can't shout Allah Akbar at the top of your voice more than 100 times - we are about no.104 in the convoy - without being sincere and passionate. Dead Heat between all countries, when the crowds let rip, although the last night in Tunisia was the most fervent, but Morocco overall.
Most efficient Convoy Marshals: Algerian, when they bothered to. I got the feeling sometimes that they were playing with us, letting the convoy run pell mell along motorways, then reining it in and bringing it to a halt in order to change over at their lunch break. (I'm not joking) I would have given Tunisia joint billing, but if we were able to outmanoevre them so easily, they don't deserve it. However, when we set off from Gabes, we left the convoy to fill up with LPG when we saw a station. In seconds the bemused gas station owners and sightseers were overwhelmed with police, and much to the surprise of the owner, a car with a three star general or equivalent swept in to the gas station and said the government would pay. They then gave us a 2 police car escort and forced their way through he traffic tailing back behind the convoy, and I re-joined it in minutes. The Algerians however, forced groups of ten vehicles through crowded town centres at a reasonable pace, and without unduly alienating the public, something that the Tunisians couldn't manage.
From our border cold lands to Gabes the half day trip was uneventful. Vehicles were escorted to a football stadium - uncomfortable memory of Death camps in Chile when we see the fencing around the terraces and the heavy police presence - but of course the vehicles are secure, which they would not be in the town. I spent the afternoon shopping and received no attention, because I don't look like a Muslim, and this convoy now seems to be associated in Government's minds and the public's with a British Muslim project. When I changed money in the Post Office the heavily scarfed woman teller was quite surly about changing sterling. She called a supervisor and we saw them look on the internet for a picture of the note to ensure it was genuine. She was definitely irritated. But when someone mentioned Gaza to her, her manner changed, a warmth and speed entered into her proceedings. She did the same things, but willingly, and saw us off with a cheery greeting. Conservative po-faced bank tellers support the fight of the Palestinians eh! If you were a government, you must get a piece of this action, you must show the people that you are throwing your weight behind this problem, and not siding with the Americans (although you probably are).
However, if this is an Islamic Jihad, this convoy, then that might stir up an Islamic movement that is sleeping in every country, it now seems to me. But if that is not harnessed properly for the government, it might lead to its overthrow, as in Algeria. So it might be best to get the convoy through in the dead of night, film a few selected supporters cheering and show it on TV as a great government triumph? You'll have to make your own mind up.
Morocco is a Monarchy, which is traditional and seems to have genuine support, there seems no rift between the people and the Government, in general
Award for most friendly Police:Morocco - see the Fez. The guys posing there are Colonels and similar.
Algeria, and my research is my memory from some years back, was a once democratic state in which the Islamist Party won an election, but was denied power. There followed years of bloody civil war. The police are direct, friendly - see boy's toys - but were prepared to drive us round in circles when it suited them.
Most Ruthless Police: Algeria
In Tunisia our convoy yesterday crawled along at 5 mph. We stopped for 2 hours for midday prayers, then shortly after for Lunch, then shortly after for sunset prayers, and we still hadn't reached Ben Guerdone, the town we couldn't go round. On the outskirts we stopped for no reason, and a message filtered back that we had stopped simply because we couldn't push through the crowds. i walked forward, and indeed it was so. Everyone was high fiving, shouting thank you to us, or Allah Akbar. they gave us the two fingered salute, but also the single finger pointed to heaven - it also means God is Great - and the more of that there was, the more the government wouldn't like it, I fear. they gave us all this love, emotion, power, and biscuits, water, milk, sweets, bread, and I feel sure that some would readily have given their lives right there.No wonder the opposition conference harnessing the convoy to its cause was cancelled and the leaders arrested, but you'll have to do your own research to find out if these rumours are true.
While we were on one of our many stops, I filmed a man who approached me to use his English, but also to tell me of the distress that he feels that his 'brothers' in Palestine are being killed while the West supports Israel, especially, he complained, by the use of the American veto. "why do Americans hate us so much?" he said, in reversal of the usual complaint.
Several people gathered round, and I shook hands with each of them as they joined the group to be involved with this westerner. One man, a billy bunter type, fat and with a pushed in nose, joined us and there was a perceptible shuffle among the rest. I had just replied to the question 'how do I like Tunisia? with 'great, the police are a little strong, but I really like it'. I did it on purpose, I was trying to sow the seed of a conversation to feel the pulse. My Friend replied without hesitation, 'yes, they are strong, they keep tourists safe, you can be sure that you will have no problems in Tunisia'. I saw Billy Bunter later, working the crowds in Guerdone, so he really was Secret Service, even if he was young and very thick looking. ( That's shameful prejudice really, but it's what I see)
The police tried to keep us moving through the town, but it is a large town, and it took us more than three hours. Three hours! It was like a carnival, and an election all at once. The police drove their cars, in the suburbs anyway, along the dusty road edges where the crowds were standing, between the crowds and the convoy, to force the crowds back. Is this sensible crowd control, or evidence of a police state? I know some vehicles went out of their way to antagonise the police by stopping as often as possible - Respect Party Agenda by rumour - but we didn't and the crowds constantly surged forward. They chanted Allah Akbar, and shook hands endlessly. It took three and a half hours to drive through the town and we finished up in this car park at 2330 and went to sleep exhausted.
Least Effective Police: Tunisia, but I hope that the man I spoke to is not arrested, nor any other, though I hope that in the other countries too. They were simply more effective in policing us.
In life as in personal relationships, there is a balance between handing power to others and retaining autonomy for yourself, which some people think can be expressed in a democracy, perhaps. What is the level of crowd control that is acceptable? The police were really no worse than I have seen in Las vegas on New Years Eve - friendly if you don't question them, but totally ruthless in dispersing the crowds after midnight. better than the Tunisians in fact. Arrest and detention without trial cannot be acceptable, if that happens, and allowing popular movements free expression is essential to avoid a police state. But whilst i think that everyone must form their own opinion of all these three governments so far, I am very certain of this: the passion of evryone in these lands is clear, and the great sense of personal connection to the tragedies of Palestine is palpable. Until they can freely express, there cannot be satisfactory peace in their own countries, surely, and untill Israel is made to behave like a civilised country, they will never rest.

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