After standing up to terrorists, Ben Guerdane’s residents want government to stand with them
Ben Guerdane - The population of Ben Guerdane have let it be known they are proud of their efforts to help government forces thwart jihadist attempts to establish an “emirate” in the southern Tunisian city of 79,000 people.
“We gave an example on how to fight terrorism by siding en masse with government troops on the battlefield,” said Chaout Youssef, an architect and head of the local civic association Citizenship and Development.
“We provided every assistance we could to the soldiers and police battling the terrorists. We gave them information about the jihadists’ movements. We also handed them food, drinks and encouragement.”
He added: “We wanted them to feel they are in the midst of their own people and wanted the terrorists to feel the opposite,”
Jamal Guenia, another architect and civil society activist, said Ben Guerdane drew its strength against jihadists from the mettle and richness of its social fabric.
“We have more than 60 civic associations with almost 15 associations that are very active. You can mobilise people quickly and effectively that way,” said Guenia who woke at dawn on March 7th to the sound of gunfire as Islamic State (ISIS) fighters stormed the town’s military barracks.
“They fired at the barracks from two sides but could not take over the military facility,” he said. “The reaction was swift and they were scattered all over the town.”
More than 50 militants were killed in the assault and subsequent clashes.
This is not known as a rich town but luxurious villas and upmarket shops and businesses were built on oil wealth from neighbouring Libya. Many local people earned good money from cross-border trade. That, however, was before Libya plunged into chaos as militias and terror organisations, such as ISIS, took advantage of the leadership vacuum following the ouster of longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Ben Guerdane has been a breeding ground for radical Islamists despite its residents’ apparent wealth. According to Western intelligence and think-tanks, more than 15% of the estimated 6,000 Tunisian jihadists recruited by ISIS and other extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya were from Ben Guerdane.
“I do not want to give them an excuse. These terrorists lived among us. The local society here is conservative and religious but people lacked good religious education. When the scourge of radicalism came, some young people took it as the good side of religion,” resident Mokhtar Saadi said.
Saadi and other civic activists said extremist assailants were wiped out by the sheer force of government troops and by the vigorous reaction of residents.
“Jihadists and other extremists have lost forever after the last battle,” he said. “They were crushed by the security forces and rejected by the locals. We know of fathers, sisters, brothers and uncles who shut the doors when jihadist relatives sought a place to hide.”
The economic consequences after the early March violence are likely to fuel more rejection of extremists. The town’s economic lifeline was virtually severed as Tunisia shut its border and hundreds of businesses linked to informal trade with Libya were closed.
Ties to Libya are crucial for Ben Guerdane. About 80% of trade goes through regular cross-border channels. The remainder includes less formal arrangements.
“Most of the people here earn a living through border trade with Libya. Today, most of those people survive on savings or solidarity among extended families members. This is not a sustainable situation if the border remains closed,” said Youssef.
Youssef, like most other activists interviewed for this story, is in his early 30s.
“We will not remain as wise in dealing with the state if there is no change in policy to help the town,” shouted a local young man before civic activists, eager to show a lasting goodwill towards the central government, interrupted him.
Civic activists argue jihadists and other extremists are a minority and insist the local population came out against the jihadists out of genuine rejection of violence. Many feared the disruption of peace and stability could hurt business.
The Maghreb market, a trading hub of about 1,200 shops, is at an eerie standstill. Stretching over 1 hectare, the market was alive with activity.
“That market supplies other markets across Tunisia with various goods brought from Libya,” said Kamel Derbal, head of Ben Guerdane Traders Association. “Everything has stopped now. There were more than 5,000 traders here. The border is shut down and everything here has stopped.” The Tunisian authorities opened the border temporarily in recent days.
Derbal and other traders have urged the government to provide help so locals can weather the crisis. “We stood with the state in its fight against jihadists despite marginalisation and pauperisation. We expect the state to stand with us now,” he said.
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid visited the town after the attack to thank residents for supporting security forces and outline a development scheme for the area.
Tunisia has built a 200km barrier that stretches about half the length of its border with Libya in an attempt to stop militant incursions. There are plans to install electronic surveillance equipment, too.
“We want development projects and some quick answers to the current difficulties,” said Saadi, an unemployed university graduate. “They had built a security wall and we want them to build an economic wall to provide sustained sources of revenue and good salaries for local people.”
Saadi earned a good living running a spice shop and a currency change stall. Like most activities linked to Libya, his businesses have stalled.
“My clients used to be mostly Libyans coming for spices and to exchange currency but I have no such customers anymore. Like many others here, I am looking for a solution,” he said.