This is the second in a two-part series looking at how Tunisia’s fledgling democracy is challenged by a history of dictatorship, economic turmoil and youth radicalization. Read part one here.
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.
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.”
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.