CRF Blog

The Fall After the Arab Spring

by Bill Hayes

In The Fall After the Arab Spring for the New Yorker, George Packer looks at how Tunisia, which inspired the revolutions, has now “become the leading exporter of jihadis.”

A few miles northwest of Tunis, with its sidewalk cafés and streets lined by rows of manicured ficus trees and its avenues named after European cities, there is a poor suburb of eighty thousand people called Douar Hicher. The streets are narrow and rutted, with drains cut through the middle, and the houses cluster close together, as if to keep out strangers. In the first days of 2011, thousands of young people from Douar Hicher and other suburbs poured into downtown Tunis to demand the ouster of the country’s corrupt and autocratic leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Within two weeks, he had been overthrown, in what became known as the Jasmine Revolution. This sudden change was soon celebrated around the world as the first sprout of the Arab Spring.

In the new Tunisia, freedom brought tumult as well as joy. Douar Hicher became the scene of preaching, protesting, and, at times, violence by Islamists. Before the revolution, Tunisia had been kept rigidly secular. Now the black flag of radical Islam flew over many buildings, and hard-liners known as Salafis — the word refers to the original followers of the Prophet Muhammad — took advantage of the new openness and tried to impose Sharia in their neighborhoods. Some of the Salafis belonged to an organization called Ansar al-Sharia, the Defenders of Sharia, which opposed electoral democracy and wanted to set off an Islamist insurrection. The group began attacking Tunisian security forces, and in October, 2012, a Salafi imam was killed when he joined an ambush of a national-guard post in Douar Hicher. In 2013, faced with a state crackdown, the Salafis went underground, and young men and women began disappearing from neighborhoods like Douar Hicher.

In November, I was shown around Douar Hicher by Mohamed, a local engineer in his late twenties. Mohamed, who grew up there, said, “The friends I was studying with in high school and boxing with — ninety per cent have gone, and not to Italy. They went to Syria and Iraq. There are no longer any young people.” Small children were picking discarded clothes from a garbage pile, but there were few of the idle young men who gather so conspicuously in the streets of working-class Arab neighborhoods. Thirteen residents of a single block had been killed fighting in Syria and Iraq, Mohamed said. He pointed to a small side street: “Two weeks ago, thirty people disappeared from here.” They were on the run from the police, and were believed to have joined the Islamic State, or isis, in Libya — an increasingly common destination for Tunisian jihadis. The families of Salafis seldom report these departures, fearing harassment by the authorities. “It’s a surprise when they leave, but we know who’s contemplating it,” Mohamed said. The main reasons for leaving, he added, were “marginalization and joblessness.”

A friend of Mohamed’s, an unemployed telecommunications engineer named Nabil Selliti, left Douar Hicher to fight in Syria. Oussama Romdhani, who edits the Arab Weekly in Tunis, told me that in the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosters critical thought. Before Selliti left, Mohamed asked him why he was going off to fight. Selliti replied, “I can’t build anything in this country. But the Islamic State gives us the chance to create, to build bombs, to use technology.” In July, 2013, Selliti blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq.

Mohamed and I passed a hole-in-the-wall café where middle-aged men were smoking water pipes and drinking coffee. It had been the hangout of a young local named Hamza Maghraoui, who went to Syria and joined the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate there. In 2013, he returned to Douar Hicher, where he told war stories at his favorite café (and violated the anti-smoking strictures of Al Qaeda). Maghraoui went back to the front, and joined isis. Last February, he became famous in Douar Hicher when a video was posted to YouTube showing him help capture Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian Air Force pilot, who was then burned alive. Maghraoui was killed in September, in an American air strike.

At a garden café on the outskirts of Douar Hicher, I met another friend of Mohamed’s, whom I’ll call Kamal. He was in his mid-twenties, with scruffy jeans, hair that was gelled upward, and a look of hurt in his eyes. He had once worked in tourism, acting as a freelance guide for foreigners and as a d.j. in Tunisia. Now he was jobless. Tourism, one of Tunisia’s major industries, dropped by nearly fifty per cent after June 26th last year, when, on a beach near the resort town of Sousse, a twenty-three-year-old student and break-dancing enthusiast pulled an automatic weapon out of his umbrella and began shooting foreigners; he spared Tunisian workers, who tried to stop him. The terrorist, who had trained at an Islamic State camp in Libya, killed thirty-eight people, thirty of them British tourists, before being shot dead by police.

Kamal had joined the Jasmine Revolution, but he was angry that it had not improved the prospects of young Tunisians like him. For a few months, he worked at an Airbus plant in the south of Tunis, but the salary was so low that he decided he was better off trying to make a living in Tunisia’s informal economy. Most of the men in his family worked in the police force, but Kamal had been rejected at the recruitment office, without explanation. He glanced at the other tables in the garden café, lowered his voice, and outlined what he called “the project.” He said, “The Islamic State will rule the world. There will be no flag other than the flag of Allah, and there will be justice and peace all over the world. Those who have done wrong, who have killed people, will be killed under the Koran. Some will die in public trials, in front of everybody.” He went on, “In Tunisia, the President and all his officials will be removed. They’ll get what they deserve. They are infidels.”

In 2013, Kamal joined demonstrations organized by Ansar al-Sharia. He had known the imam who was killed in Douar Hicher, and many of Kamal’s friends had died abroad after becoming jihadis; those who had returned to Tunisia were jailed for supporting terrorism. He wasn’t ready to fight in Syria, but he dreaded the thought of remaining in Tunisia. Less than an hour away from Douar Hicher, along the Mediterranean, were the upscale restaurants of La Marsa, home to wealthy Tunisians and expatriates, and the ancient Roman waterways of Carthage, which were lined with sprawling villas still occupied by the corrupt relatives of Ben Ali. “The rich in Tunisia get richer, and the poor get poorer,” Kamal said.

At the table, another young Tunisian, Aslam Souli, was interpreting for us. Souli was a member of the élite — his father was a well-known professor of Arabic literature, and he was studying to be a radiologist. After the Sousse massacre, he and some friends formed an organization called the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism. The group provides poor youths with activities at recreation centers and offers counselling sessions against jihad. When Souli described this effort, Kamal was dismissive — Souli and his friends, he said, were just wealthy kids seeking yet more money and attention.

“The youth are lost,” Kamal told me. “There’s no justice.” Douar Hicher, he said, “is the key to Tunisia.” He continued, “If you want to stop terrorism, then bring good schools, bring transportation — because the roads are terrible — and bring jobs for young people, so that Douar Hicher becomes like the parts of Tunisia where you Westerners come to have fun.”

For all his talk about jihad, Kamal seemed like a young man who would jump at a chance to party at a techno club. He was eager to mention European friends with whom he discusses religion (but not the project). To my surprise, he condemned the Sousse massacre and a terrorist attack in March, 2015, at Tunisia’s national museum, the Bardo, where three gunmen killed two dozen people. The victims were innocents, he said. Kamal still entertained a fantasy of joining a reformed police force. His knowledge of Islam was crude, and his allegiance to isis seemed confused and provisional — an expression of rage, not of ideology. But in Douar Hicher anger was often enough to send young people off to fight. [more]