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WSIS: Secret police, hunger and booze

The aftermath of a world summit

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Secret policemen: you miss 'em when they're gone. It seems most people shipped out of Tunis soon after the closing ceremony ended around 7pm. When I got back to my hotel around 10pm, there was only one secret policeman standing guard and he didn't even bother to inspect my badge.

This morning, I only saw one who idly came to check out why a lunatic Englishman was in the swimming pool. To Tunisians, the weather is almost unbearably cold. To me, it feels like a cool spot during the summer. Besides that swimming pool had been mocking me for a week. Unless I was willing to get up at 5am or go for a midnight dip, I haven't had a chance to get near it since the conference opened.

These aren't proper secret police anyway, mere security. And I hope to God the real ones weren't the men pretending to be journalists in the press centre this week either. If they were, the Tunisians really have very little to be afraid of. If MI5, say, were to decide to infiltrate a news organisation, it would train the people up, make em at least able to appear to do the job. Instead, Tunisian secret police appear to have come direct from Tunisian secret police training school.

Pre-requisite skills are the ability to wear a cheap suit badly, sit for hours on end not doing anything except showing indirect interest in the loudest and quietest people in any room, and to forget to maintain your cover when outside of the immediate area.

I asked one, in French, what he was working on, just for a laugh. He just mumbled some in Arabic and stared at the keyboard as if willing it to start typing something.

Conference World - where human existence is put on hold

That you can start to enjoy the fact people are being paid to spy on you is a clear sign that you have entered Conference World ™ - a self-contained microcosm of madness where even the most ridiculous things become accepted as normal.

Conference World this time took on two of my personal favourite pasttimes: eating food and drinking booze. There was a media cafe in the media centre that was completely free, which was fantastic. Or it would have been if it had served more than coffee, water, juice and hors d'oeuvres.

You could have a mini-pain-au-chocolate, or a mini-croissant, or a date with some strange sweet bogey attached to it for free. But ask for a sandwich and you got blank looks. Offer them money and they will insist: "No, no, it is gratuit. Free." No, you say, for a sandwich. "You can buy sandwich in conference."

No booze either. Absolutely no booze. Not even a sherry. Whoever heard of a press area without alcohol? Having got up at 6.30am, started work at 8.30am and worked through to 9pm with nothing but a mini-croissant and five cups of coffee to keep you going, believe me, they could have been charging £10 for a pint and they'd have had a queue round the block.

It's not the Islamic thing either. Alcohol is freely available in Tunisia - even if the alcohol aisle at the supermarket has doors either end. Besides the Kram centre was officially UN territory during the summit.

But then we heard a rumour that they served beer and wine at the restaurant at the far end of the centre. A scout was dispatched and quickly confirmed. But when we arrived, we were informed that you have to buy a 35 dinar meal before you can buy any alcohol. "Fuck it, it's worth it," someone, possibly me, said. But the truth was that sitting down and eating a meal was going to take too long. We had another 200 press conferences to go to, 350 interviews to do, and 1,238 events we had planned to poke our heads into to see if anything interesting was going on. We were in Conference World.

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