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Thursday, March 30, 2017
- In the city of Metlaoui in the Governorate of Gafsa, a mining region in the parched south of Tunisia, the streets are dust, filled with ruts, the skin of the men in the cracked lanes leathery brown from the heavy weather.
In Ibn Khaldoun, a neighbourhood on Metlaoui’s fringes, the area seems less of a city and more a chaotic village of one-storey homes of brick and concrete trying to hold fast to sudden rises in the earth.
Behind the flimsy steel gate of one home at the end of an alley in Ibn Khaldoun, locals take me into the courtyard of a home of hollow windowsills and empty doorframes. Used clothes spill out the doorway into the courtyard.
Five young Salafists, guilty of nothing more than sporting long beards and praying five times a day, neighbours say, were arrested in a raid by security forces in late October.
“An officer from the security forces said [the Salafists] had weapons. But they didn’t. So the officer said ‘But they will build them!’”
A neighbour points to the earthen floor of the house. “But look; the Salafists were praying in the dust! No one is funding them or supporting them. They’re no threat – they don’t have anything.” Around him, other neighbours of the arrested Salafists loudly condemned the ruling Ennahdha party, who they saw as responsible for the arrests.
Tunisian authorities launched military operations into the Tunisian interior in response to attacks by armed militants in October which rocked a major tourism hub, nearly destroyed the tomb of a former president, and reportedly left six National Guard soldiers dead. Yet, it’s possible that the embattled ruling Ennahdha Party may be using the military operations as a card to appease powerful political adversaries.
According to Fabio Merone, an analyst living in Tunis who specialises in the politics of Salafi groups like those blamed for October’s attacks, the once-outlawed Ennahdha Party “has been refused power so long that they’re desperate to integrate into the elite.” He went on to say that, “Ennhdha is being asked by police forces and the wealthy to take a clear stand with the state against extremists.”
In doing so, he claims, they’re attacking the conservative base that brought them to power in 2011.
After the rise of a small extremist insurgency on Tunisia’s western border and the assassination of two prominent leftist opposition leaders earlier this year, accusations from leftist and liberal political groups against Ennahdha of being tolerant of terrorist groups rose to a crescendo.
Following the last assignation in July, 60 members of the National Constituent Assembly – charged with drafting a constitution and already far behind deadline – walked out, freezing the transitional process completely. This brought the ire of still more Tunisians to bear on the Islamist party, currently at the head of the transitional government.
In its attempts to appease well-off liberals who prefer the old regime of president Zine El Abdine Ben Ali and who feel “suffocated by the Islamists,” Ennahdha is turning its back on its once-thriving Salafist base.
The Salafists, at first wildly successful in channeling the frustration of Tunisia’s poor after the fall of former dictator Ben Ali, are now being publicly rejected by Ennahdha. After Ennahdha cancelled the national conference of ultra-conservative group Ansar Al Charia in May, and in August officially labeled it a ‘terrorist group’, average Tunisian Salafists are facing the heat, like those arrested in Metlaoui.
“Tunisian families are looking at Ennahdha like they once looked at the RCD [Constitutional Democratic Rally, which ruled Tunisia until 2011], because of the arbitrary arrests,” says Selim Kharrat, executive director of Al Bawsala, an NGO which encourages political participation in Tunisia.
Kharrat raised the possibility that arbitrary arrests of Salafists and raids are the work of security forces outside Ennahdha’s control. He notes that sections of the security forces are influenced by supporters of the old regime, who feel threatened by the rise of the Salafists and may be pursuing the crackdown.
“We are in a crisis of trust, between the Islamists on one side and liberals on the other,” Kharrat says plainly. Yet whether it’s the work of secular groups tied to the old regime or Ennahdha politicians trying to please them, the brunt of the war on terror being faced by Tunisians in the impoverished interior is the same.
In a farming village not far from Metlaoui, villagers mill silently around a home in the middle of freshly ploughed fields. My guide tells me that only days after the start of the military operations in October, eight locals were arrested from the house after a reported standoff with the National Guard.
The whole household was rounded up and jailed on suspicion that two of the young men in the home were plotting terrorist acts. However, evidence was reportedly thin, and the six others were simply family of the young men.
Though released soon after their imprisonment, my guide relays to me, the innocent family members are outraged with the security services and the government they see as complicit in the raid. Despite this, they are silent with me – eyes lowered and hands stuffed in their pockets. My guide tells me the family members of the suspected terrorists were given orders from the government not speak to journalists after their arrest.
Seif Eddine Belabed, a media supervisor for Ennahdha in one of its neighbourhood offices in Tunis, seemed unfazed by the story of Tunisians being swept up in raids with little or no evidence. “Maybe I arrest 100 people, and five or six are innocent,” he responds, in an office in downtown Tunis. “A mistake, but at the same time you’ve caught over 90 bad guys. This is what happens in a raid.”
Like the Ennahdha leadership since it began cracking down on the outwardly pious in Tunisia earlier this year, Belabed disowned the Salafists – violent or no. “There’s this idea that Salafis are a branch of Ennahdha. This is wrong.” Waving his hand, he said, “In their methods and ideology, they are something else completely.”