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Aggressive Salafist Islamists Threaten Tunisia's Dream of Freedom


By Nick Meo

22 Sep 2012

In Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of the Arab Spring, there is disillusion with the aftermath of the revolution and growing support for hard-line Salafist Islamists

Luckily there were no sunbathers at the swimming pool when the mob of 80 Islamic hardliners arrived to smash up the Horchani Hotel, the only place in Sidi Bouzid where you could buy a cold beer.

Bearded, angry young men threatened the few staff who were around at lunchtime with iron bars, broke windows, smashed up ornamental fountains and threw bottles of wine and spirits into the empty pool, which is now full of shattered glass.

"They said if I serve alcohol again they will come back and burn down the hotel," said Jamil Horchani, 64, whose family has run the place since 1976.

The birthplace of the Arab Spring is a few streets away in the flyblown, ramshackle town four hours drive south of Tunis, the capital. A desperate young street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself alight in December 2010, sparking protests which grew into an uprising and toppled the autocratic leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali before spreading beyond Tunisia's borders.

The revolution, started by an act of despair, raised high hopes in Tunisia, a nation of 11 million which is has as much in common with the northern Mediterranean countries as the Arab ones on the southern shore; lively bars, beaches where Tunisian women wear bikinis, and universities which turn out well-educated young people who struggle to find work in the depressed post-revolution economy.

Sidi Bouzid, a backwater and unemployment blackspot, doesn't enjoy much of the capital's Tunisian dolce vita, and since its brief moment of glory last year not much has changed. At least the police who hounded Mr Bouazizi to his death have been withdrawn from the streets – their place filled by earnest young men in traditional robes with long beards.

They organise street cleaning teams to sweep away rubbish, and vigilante groups who patrol for the criminals who have become bolder since the revolution.

Many traders and shoppers in the souk are glad of the Salafists, as the hardliners are called. But there are those who fear that the town has swapped one group of persecutors, the police, for another.

"There are two types of Salafists," said a 44-year-old widow who would only give her first name, Fatima. "Those that are peaceful and spiritual and the aggressive ones. They attack people in the streets for not going to say their prayers, and they start fights in the mosque with people they don't like."

They are the men who smashed up Mr Horchani's bar. The businessman is former captain of the town's football team and a leading member of the business elite which prospered under Ben Ali's rule.

In other Tunisian towns’ customers and bar staff have grabbed bar stools and pool cues and sent squads of self-appointed religious enforcers packing. But Sidi Bouzid is a conservative place with many Salafists and only a few drinkers, who are now a persecuted minority.

It's not only Tunisia's imbibers who have suffered: in recent weeks Salafists have harassed artists whose work they don't like and threatened journalists who write unfavourably about them. They have pressured women to wear the headscarf, especially in universities which have become cultural battlegrounds.

"It was terrifying, they were a tough bunch and they knew they would get away with it – none of them has been arrested," Mr Horchani said.

"I was not surprised at all when they attacked the US embassy in Tunis. The interior minister has made it clear that the police will not arrest them, and anyway the government and the Salafists are all Islamists together."

The Salafists were mainly regarded as a nuisance until they broke into the US embassy in Tunis nine days ago, setting fire to the gym and looting the American school nearby. Now ordinary Tunisians are becoming frightened of them.

"Salafists are maybe two per cent of the population and cause 90 per cent of the trouble," said one young man in the capital, who said he was scared to go for a beer after work.

Partly it is fear of the unknown. Under Ben Ali's rule Salafists were locked up – often sharing prison cells with members of the current governing Ennahda party, who are moderate Islamists.

After the revolution, thousands were let out, and promptly set about organising political parties and making converts. The Salafist message of equality and moral reform is simple and powerful. After years of corrupt government it is particularly appealing to the young and desperate who expected much from the revolution and feel disappointed. The unemployment rate is 18 per cent, and nearer 50 per cent for graduates in towns like Sidi Bouzid.

Ben Ali's bans on men growing beards and women wearing headscarves or veils were lifted in the spirit of liberty after the revolution. Now, for the first time, there are Islamic-looking men and women everywhere, to the dismay of middle-class Tunisians who prefer jeans and T-shirts, or skirts and revealing dresses. They increasingly complain that the government's moderate Islamists are soft on the hard-line Islamists.

In June Salafists started riots after invading an art gallery in an upmarket Tunis suburb in the same week the government brought in a delegation of would-be foreign investors from abroad - who instead of looking at business opportunities were forced to stay in their hotel rooms.

A few weeks ago a French councillor of Tunisian ancestry warned tourists to stay away for their own safety, after he was attacked by Islamic extremists with swords because his wife and daughter were wearing shorts. It was a fresh setback for the crucial tourism sector, which had finally begun to revive, with a third more British visitors in May than in the same month last year. Television pictures of the burning embassy and bearded protesters are likely to deter tourists further.

Last week, after the attack on the US embassy in which four rioters died, police launched an unconvincing crackdown on hardliners in the capital. Armed officers in balaclavas gathered outside the El Fatah mosque, taken over now by the Salafists, on Avenue de Liberte, with its smart boutiques and airline offices.

Inside was Abu Iyadh, a notorious preacher, allegedly with combat experience in Afghanistan, who was accused of whipping up the mob outside the US embassy.

The bourgeoisie of Tunis, the women in smart, skimpy clothes, the men in suits and nice shoes, emerged from shops and offices to watch in horrified fascination as a mob of Salafists, many wearing scraps of camouflaged military uniforms, formed a wall of howling bodies to keep the police out of the mosque.

"The genie is out of the bottle," one man murmured as he gazed at them. "What they did at the US embassy damaged the image of Tunisia in the world. And they got away with it. There will be a lot more trouble to come."

The real nightmare for middle-class residents of Tunis are the so-called Jihad-Salafists, who number only a few thousand individuals but who are determined, tough and well organised. Some were caught in February with a lorry-load of guns being smuggled in from Libya. Their hard core has experience fighting the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Iraq, and more are heading to Syria for the latest jihad.

Chokri Abdelfattah, 40, fought in Libya against the Gaddafi regime, then returned home to rejoin the struggle to turn Tunisia into an Islamic state. He arrived for an interview with The Sunday Telegraph wearing a T-shirt with "Al-Quida" written on it and a graphic showing a jet flying into a skyscraper. It would have been enough to get him jailed under Ben Ali, but nobody will arrest him for it now.

A few weeks ago his nose was split open and his front teeth smashed by a tear gas cylinder fired by police during a demonstration, and he boasted that his brother had just been arrested. Police had filmed the brother driving outside the US embassy with a Stars-and-Stripes tied to the back of his car, dragging the flag in the dust.

"I am proud to be a jihadist, it is my duty to protect Muslims," he said. "America is our enemy. It kills our brothers. We don't want their embassy here."

But although he was delighted with the embassy invasion he added that Tunisia was not yet ready for holy war. "It's not the time for Kalashnikovs at the moment. In Libya I had 10, but I didn't bring them back to Tunisia, I gave them up to the authorities."

The Jihad-Salafists are concentrating their efforts on Dawa, educating and converting Muslims, for the time being. Mr Abdelfattah said that growing disillusion with the moderate Islamist government was making that task easy, especially with poor young men.

"Ennadha was elected because the voters thought it was an Islamic party, but now the voters are starting to realise that it is just like Ben Ali's party," he said.

"We are patient. Tunisians will turn to our way. Then they will choose the Caliphate."