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Story Publication logo July 26, 2015

Tunisians Struggle with Arab Spring Impact


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What drives young people to go and fight in Syria? How are governments trying to stop them, and does...


SBEITLA, Tunisia — At gate to the mosque in Hayy Sourour in Sbeitla, deep in Tunisia's arid interior region of Kasserine, the main door is missing. Two of the three green doors remain under a simple sign identifying the place of worship. Mosque Ibn Taymiyya is named after the 13th century sheikh known for setting the precedent of takfir, or declaring other Muslims infidels and requiring warfare against them.

The name is new, locals said. Salafi painted it on the wall when they took over two years ago, renaming the mosque, removing the government-appointed imam and preaching about responsibility to send fighters to Syria. When police closed down the mosque July 4, they upset the entire neighborhood.

"People are angry because the elderly have nowhere else to pray. They're cursing whoever caused this, whether Salafi or the state," said Atef K., 40, a shopkeeper down the street who did not want to give his full name because of the tensions regarding the situation.

Salafi didn't do anything bad in Hayy Sourour, he said, except encourage youths to go to Syria. "Of course, no one wants their kids in Syria. They go to jihad to die," he said.

The mosque was closed and reopened by force twice in one weekend, locals said. When Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi announced a national state of emergency against terrorism, security forces placed a padlock on the gate. Salafi youths ripped it off several hours later. Police raided Hayy Sourour at night, arresting the youths and relocking the gate. More youths — not religiously driven, just kids zealous to protect their neighborhood, Atef said — removed the main door. Authorities then cut off power and water to the mosque. At sunset prayer time, armed personnel carriers patrolled the road between Sbeitla and the town of Kasserine. Hayy Sourour was quiet. "Without electricity, there's no call to prayer," he said.

The fight over this one mosque symbolizes a swath of broader societal tensions and fault lines now running through Tunisia, the birthplace and ostensibly the only success story of the 2011 Arab Spring. Four years later, the country has a new constitution and unprecedented civil liberties and has had two free and fair elections. But it has also become the world's top contributor of fighters to the intractable conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq.

Not only are Tunisians joining radical groups abroad, but they've also radicalized at home, carrying out massacres of tourists at the Bardo Museum in March and on the beach in Sousse in June. Meanwhile, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade is training on Kasserine's Mount Chaambi and attacking security forces nearby. While the state attempts a security crackdown, residents of interior regions like Kasserine, Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid say they are more marginalized than before the revolution. Political exclusion and socioeconomic desperation, they say, are combining with strict police tactics to drive young people toward violence.

Behind the Hayy Sourour mosque, graffiti on one wall read, "Fuck the police" in English, with "the government" added in Arabic. It has been there since ousted President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's days, Atef said, but the revolution neither improved life in Sbeitla nor changed people's view of the authorities.

Neighborhoods like Hayy Sourour and Hayy al-Khader are "hard," said Habib Dalhouni, 50, an Arabic professor and community organizer in Sbeitla. "People here despise the government," he said, pointing at the dusty unpaved streets, empty under a blazing Ramadan sun. At night these streets are full, he said, and police rarely enter, despite rampant drug abuse and petty crime.

Now that Tunisia is in a state of emergency, arrests are increasing. Citizens feel trapped between Salafi agitation and state-imposed violence, he said. They don't want their sons recruited to fight in Chaambi or Syria, but they also resent the heavy police presence and seemingly arbitrary raids. "The state needs to persuade citizens to join their fight against terrorism," he said. "But people think the state is going to war against Islam."

Unrest in the interior regions is nothing new, said 62-year-old Noureddine Ichaoui, a retired school inspector who volunteers with Amal, an organization promoting active citizenship. "Kasserine has been like this for centuries. People are always hungry and poor," he said, listing examples of bread riots, farmers' uprisings and other economically driven protests from the early 20th century. "The state was using machine guns and Kalashnikovs in 2011, but our youths confronted them barechested. They inherited oppression from grandparents and parents. People here were already dead two generations ago. They had nothing to lose."

In Sidi Bouzid — where the vegetable vendor Mohammed Bouazizi famously set himself on fire in 2011, sparking Tunisia's uprising and subsequent revolts across the Arab world — people laughed off the idea of revolutionary success.

"It started as a revolution and became a catastrophe," said Rachid Fetini, 52, a textile merchant and the head of a business center in Sidi Bouzid. Postrevolution governments brought no development to internal regions, he said, adding that authorities were busy writing the constitution and navigating between religious and political identities. But the anger and neglect that pushed people into revolution in the first place has grown. "There's no encouragement for investors — local or international. Now we've been branded as a terrorism hub," he said. "Who will ever start a business here?"

In central Sidi Bouzid, several yards from the site of Bouazizi's self-immolation, 28-year-old Bilal sat in front of a fruit stand. He didn't vote in the last two elections, nor has he ever held a stable, full-time job. "No one deserved my vote," he said. Politicians don't see people in Sidi Bouzid, he said, before or after the revolution. "We wanted to prove ourselves, to show that we exist in Tunisia. We wanted people to stop passing by us," he said, explaining why he participated in protests in 2011. "Now we regret it. The revolution was a mistake."

The fruit stand's owner, Hussein Alaoui, 35, studied accounting administration. He graduated from a trade school in 1998, but for the last four years has been able only to sell fruit. "Young people go to Syria because of poverty and unemployment," he said, waving flies from the peaches and figs. "They're recruited with ideology plus money. Give anyone 20,000 dinars [$10,000] and tell them to take weapons and go somewhere, and they will do it."

An International Crisis Group report warned in late 2013 that criminality and religious fervor were blending into "so-called Islamo-gangsterism" in peripheral areas, combining radical ideology and organized crime through cartels and contraband networks. A U.N. report from July confirms that recruiting networks make as much as $10,000 per youth enlisted by their operatives. Moez Ali, the president of UTIL, a civil engagement nongovernmental organization, verified that cash flow accompanies every recruit; the kids go to Syria as volunteers, but whoever convinces them profits in the process. "They are formatting the brains of our youths and selling them. I don't consider this a holy fight," he said. "I consider it human trafficking."

In Gafsa, an interior region rich in phosphate mines but suffering constant strikes as locals complain about insufficient jobs and wages, the streets overflow with sidewalk cafes. Their plastic tables spill into the roads, the patrons overwhelmingly young and male, drinking cheap tea and coffee for hours every day and night. Helmi Nasri, 35, is an officer of UTIL's Gafsa branch. He said the youths there were unlikely to favor fundamentalist thinking. "Our grandfathers were all miners, so people in Gafsa are leftists. They aren't drawn to anything conservative," he said. At the same time, 70 percent of Gafsa's 350,000 residents are under 35. Half of college graduates are unemployed. Youth turnout in the last elections was especially low in such regions.

"Look, these guys are just drinking coffee every day because they have nothing to do," said Ali Maamria, 41, a high school headmaster, gesturing toward the cafés. "There isn't much Salafi activity, but this is fertile recruitment ground. The youths are so easily influenced. They go for either drugs or extremism."

Protests are rife in interior regions because it's easy to blame the state for everything, said Taher Khadraoui, the director of Amal in Kasserine. But people also have an antipathy toward government that exacerbates the disconnect. "The idea of a modern state and democracy is built on citizenship. But our culture is built on violence and force, not dialogue," he said. Tunisians have yet to learn what participatory democracy means, he said, especially in marginalized areas.

In Sbeitla, Dalhouni agreed. "The state is opaque, and the people are ignorant," he said. "There's no way for them to meet halfway."

Behind the curtains of a small shop in Hayy Sourour, Nisreen Barhouni, 24, said that her neighborhood is shaabi (working-class) and that there are drug addicts, religious fundamentalists and people just living. She recently married and studies midwifery in the coastal city of Sfax. She returns to Sbeitla for the summer but doesn't want to stay. Hayy Sourour is caught in a war between the Salafi and security forces, she said, with the two sides calling each other irhab (terrorists) and taghout (rebels against God).

Her neighbors are afraid for their kids, she added — afraid that they will be arrested for no reason but more afraid that they'll go to Syria. "Everyone is against closing the mosque. How will that stop the youths from their jihad?" she said. "If they go to Syria, they die."


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