Saturday, January 28, 2012

Islamists Take Over Tunisia

Anna Mahjar-Barducci

In the aftermath of the Tunisian Jasmine revolution, Salafists, as in Egypt, are taking advantage of the new freedoms to be a threat to the growth of democracy. Islamist groups are now flourishing and are trying to transform Tunisia into an Islamic emirate. For now, they did not manage to take over big cities, however they are expanding their control over the Tunisian town of Sejnane with its 5000 inhabitants, located in the country's northwest. According to Tunisian media, a group of about 250 individuals managed to "talibanize" Sejnane , imposing their hardline Islamic rule, without being in any way contravened by the country's security forces.

Famous for its pottery artifacts, Sejnane is not different from many other Tunisian towns, in its sidewalk cafés, small shops, a few mosques and dusty roads. However, in Sejnane about 80% of the population lives under the poverty line; unemployment is almost 60% with no sign that this situation may get any better. In this environment, for the last few months a group of Salafists, most of them young, have been imposing Islamic law . Salafist gangs of young individuals have begun terrorizing people, in search of "disbelievers." There have been countless episodes of intolerance and violence --- including a man beaten after the mosque service for having argued that tobacco was not haram (forbidden); another man wounded in his leg while buying cigarettes; a wine vendor having his fingers broken; and a young girl attacked at school for not wearing a veil.

Salafists have also established in Sejnane Sharia tribunals and even a jail, where they have been torturing people arrested for not "respecting" the Islamic code. It was reported that Salafists arrested people for celebrating the New Year Eve. Salafists not only forbade the sale of alcohol, but also the sale of cakes on New Year's Day, on the pretext that it was a Christian holiday that a true Muslim is not supposed to celebrate.

There are seven mosques In Sejnane, the most important of which is run by a young imam. "He is a Salafist," a Sejnane dweller declared to the media. "He is only 22 and did not even finish high school." "The state is absent," complained another man, "and the Salafist seized the opportunity to fill this void." According to reports, the head of the Salafist group in Sejnane is an old jihadist close to Al-Qaeda. He is accused of having attempted a coup in 2006 and was therefore sentenced to 104 years of prison. He was, however, freed in a general amnesty after the revolution.

The population in Sejnane feel abandoned by the government, which is doing nothing to protect their individual freedoms. The new regime seems absent and not willing to take any steps to crack down on Islamist violence. The President of the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), Abdel Sattar Ben Moussa, finalized a report on the situation in Sejnanel: he said the Salafist phenomenon is present throughout the country, but managed to proliferate in Sejnane due to the lack of functioning government institutions in the area.

Some media called Sejnane "the First Salafist Emirate in the Country," mentioning that if nothing will be done, other emirates will flourish in Tunisia. Liberal journalists have already been attacked and beaten for having denounced the Salafist violence in the country on the media. Hamadi Dimassi, a secular, liberal journalist attacked by Islamists, claims that there is a silent complicity from the Islamist party, Ennahda, which won the largest share of seats in Tunisia's Constituent Assembly, towards the Salafists. Sofiene Ben Hamida, another journalist recently beaten, declared that the government is not taking any serious actions to try to halt the Salafists.

Ennahda leaders admit that they are backing Salafist tendencies in the country, claiming that the government is not absent, but is simply "cautious" about take any actions that might worsen the situation or deepen the divide between the different parts.

In the meantime, this Ennahda's "caution" is transforming a revolution that was liberal and secular into a religious one. A nurse from Sejnane declared to the media that her home town now belongs to the Salafists and they are the ones now making the laws. If the government will continue its policy of not acting, as looks likely, the population will be scared to denounce the violence or to rebel, leading the country towards becoming another new Islamist State.

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