Municipal elections showcase the metamorphosis of former Tunisian Salafist hub

Sejnane voters confirmed the change May 6 by choosing secularist candidates for most of its municipal 18 seats.
Sunday 27/05/2018
Major shift. A staff member of Tunisia’s Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE) counts the results of the municipal vote at a sorting centre, on May 7. (AFP)
Major shift. A staff member of Tunisia’s Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE) counts the results of the municipal vote at a sorting centre, on May 7. (AFP)

SEJANE- Sejnane, a town of about 6,000 people nested on the northern Tunisian Mogods mountains, could be the highest per capita area in Tunisia to have sent Islamist jihadists to Syria. However, radical Islamism in the small city, more famous for its Berber pottery, appears to be a thing of the past.

A tour of the town on a sunny May day, as residents shopped in the marketplace or sipped mint tea on cafe terraces, did not offer a hint of radicalisation. In the language used by the population or the way they dress, no one would guess there had been attempts by Islamists in 2012 and 2013 to turn Sejnane into a Taliban-style holdout.

Sejnane voters confirmed the change May 6 by choosing secularist candidates for most of its 18 municipal seats, official results showed. Nidaa Tounes, Tunisia’s main secular party, won six seats and four leftist and liberal groups picked up seven seats. Ennahda, the main Islamist party, won five seats.

With a turnout of more than 47%, Sejnane was well above the national turnout of about 35%.

Voting in a democratic election is a far cry from the first two years after the fall of the Ben Ali regime when fanatical Islamists installed makeshift Sharia courts and a prison where they jailed “disbelievers” for straying from the Islamists’ view of Islam by showing disrespect for prescribed dress codes, celebrating Christmas or selling beer.

Now, Sejnane, which overlooks lush green plains with ripe fields of wheat and barley, is no different than other small Tunisian towns with its sidewalk cafes, well-furnished shops and fairly clean streets.

Most of the inhabitants are poor but lead a peaceful life. There is hardly a police or national guard presence downtown. The signs of peace and security in the city tell of the change in Sejnane and in the rest of Tunisia since 2015 when the country’s security agencies retook the initiative after pro-Islamic State jihadists carried out terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sousse.

After 2015, and the election of secular leaders, security forces reversed the downward spiral that had left the country on the brink of collapse.

Before that, jihadists exploited the security void brought about by the dismantling of the intelligence and security infrastructure, the flow of militants and weapons across the border with Libya and the tolerance for radical Salafism.

Islamist-led governments at the time failed to address the creeping danger of jihadism at home or from Tunisia to the rest of the region. They were driven by a mixture of ineptitude and complacency about the role of radical Salafists and the mainstream Islamists’ ability to tame the ardour of radical militants.

The issue remains sensitive. A parliamentary committee is investigating networks involved in the departure of hundreds of jihadists to conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, Libya and sub-Saharan Africa.

The government says about 3,000 Tunisians joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and other violent groups in the Middle East. Estimates by Western think-tanks put the number of Tunisian jihadists abroad higher.

“I talk to my son, who is university graduate, about the end of this wave of jihadism. I’m reassured that it has ebbed,” said Bechir Saadallah, a retired teacher. “It seems that it was like a youthful fever swaying many driven by the loss of illusions about improving their lot here or of changing their lives.

“At that time, many promises were made to vulnerable youth who had no state to turn to. There were no parties with alternative narratives. Security institutions had become irrelevant,” he said.

Ameur al-Gharbi, a 40-year-old unemployed university graduate, said: “The leaders of fanatical extremism were almost illiterate. They drew naive youth with their promises. Some believed them and ended up joining jihadists abroad but most found the promises to be hollow.”

“When the promises of the fanatics evaporated, those of other parties replaced them but poverty and massive unemployment have remained with us,” he pointed out.

“Most young people like me travel south of the country for work for a few weeks and then we return home. The cycle is continuing. There are no manufacturing plants, no tourism or farming projects here for people to provide work despite the huge potential in tourism and water supply.”

He and other locals often say that “about 80%” of the population of Sejnane lives below the poverty line and 60% is unemployed.

“Besides all the chronic problems, such as the high cost of living, the most serious problem that makes us miserable is the water problem,” said construction worker Mohamed Amri. “Most of the people are like me here. It is very difficult to feed my four children. My 17-year-old daughter felt sympathy for me and dropped out of school to take a job in another town to help me.”

“I would like to look in the eyes of officials and tell them I did my duty and it is your turn to do your duty towards this town and its population,” he added.

His friend Aissa Chergui, a bricklayer, said: “This area has huge resources; the sea nearby, the forest and the mountain. Water is abundant and the land is rich.”

“Most people pray for a new start after the elections. We have to give hope to our children here.”

Sejnane’s region has two dams. One was built in 1994 with a capacity of 113 million cubic metres and the other was erected in May 2017.

“Our water flows south and we are thirsty in summer. We love our country and we want to share resources but the current situation is unfair for us and reminds us of the neglect and underdevelopment we are in,” Aissa said.

Tunisia’s fundamental law, approved in 2014, and the local authority legislation adopted last April decentralise power and resources to benefit local authorities. The municipal elections on May 6 are to be followed with local and regional polls.

The centralisation that characterised post-independence Tunisia led to inequality in social and economic development between the more developed coastal areas and the marginalised regions of the interior, the south and the north-west. Some northern areas, like Sejnane, are particularly behind in standard of living.

The law spelling out the prerogatives of local authorities gives municipalities wider power for the first time over the management of local and regional affairs, including over budget resources and local assets.

Sejnane has immaterial wealth, such as the artistic touch of its women. Female artisans there keep alive the tradition of Berber pottery that made the town known around the world. Tunisia has requested that UNESCO list Sejnane’s pottery among humanity’s heritage.

Sejnane’s inhabitants are looking forward to being on UNESCO’s list. They are, however, pinning more hope on the newly elected sons and daughters of Sejnane to make the city’s new municipal council a ticket out of neglect and marginalisation.