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Worldcrunch

Lessons For Libya? Tribal Clashes And Dashed Hopes Ahead Of Tunisia Election

As Tunisians head to the polls for the first free vote after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and fall of the Ben Ali regime, tribal infighting, strikes and protests are multiplying. The region of Gafsa, the hotbed of a 2008 uprising, is on the verge of chaos.

Article illustrative image Partner logo 'Coin chasers' near Metlaoui in Tunisia

METLAOUI -- The video of a man’s death, filmed on a mobile phone, is being passed from hand to hand in the living room of his family home. His three brothers are here as well as his two young daughters.  All are watching over and over again the tiny screen, which shows their brother lying on the ground in a large pool of blood while his attackers celebrate. A crowd has gathered around the body. “Well done guys! Take off his pants,” yells an angry woman. The video zooms in on the victim’s face. Someone jabs a knife in his left eye.

Ali Kalthoum, an emergency medical worker, was murdered in early June by an angry mob as he was rescuing what he thought was a woman in need. “They trapped him. They called the ambulance to have him come and they attacked him as soon as he stepped out of the vehicle,” says his brother Ibrahim. It took the family four hours to retrieve his body. “Every time we got close, they shot at us.”

Just on Ali’s back alone there were 40 stab wounds, testament to the level of violence involved in the attack. “They were from the Jerid tribe and wanted to avenge two of their own that died the day before. We are members of the Ouled Bou Yahya,” says Ibrahim.

In Metlaoui, a mining town in western Tunisia, fear is on everyone’s face. During the summer, its two main tribes faced off with stones, hatchets and hunting rifles. One poster was enough to put the two parties at loggerheads. On the poster, the Gafsa Phosphate Company (GPC), the region’s only employer, announced it would take care of the area’s endemic unemployment. But it also said it would reserve two-thirds of the jobs for members of the native Ouled Bou Yahya tribe. Residents from the area’s other tribes – which hail originally from the Nefta and Tozeur oases – reacted angrily to the snub. Fighting broke out. Homes were burned and bulldozed. In the end, the violence resulted in 13 deaths and dozens of injuries.

“We tore down the poster and they attacked us,” says one man from the Jerid tribe. Behind him is another Jerid man who points to the scar on his face. A third lifts his shirt showing the slash across his frail torso. Everyone wants to show their wounds, photographs of “martyrs,” or horrific videos caught on a cell phones.

As Tunisia prepares to hold its first free elections, the mining basin of Gafsa is at the point of exploding. First there were strikes, then protests and now tribal wars. But the reasons remain the same. Every other adult is unemployed and all feel the country’s leaders have abandoned the region.

In Metlaoui, there is still a curfew and tanks have been called in to protect the local headquarters of the GPC. Down the street, retirees on mopeds are blocking a train in protest for better pensions. “We won’t leave until we get a positive answer,” says Amara Lakhel, a former union leader. “With all the electoral wheeling and dealing, we don’t want to be forgotten.”

Out of work, short on hope

In Redeyef, a small town close to the Algerian border, young men – all of them unemployed graduates – have been occupying a mining site since July. “We’ve been asking for work for years,” says Omar, who has a management degree. “We still live at home with our parents. We can’t get married.” Around here the only hope is the GPC. Created by the French in 1896, it once employed as many as 15,000 people. Today, just 5,000.

Ten months after the fall of the country’s longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, these forgotten Tunisians say they aren’t expecting anything from these elections. “Vote? What’s the point?” says Galloul Kleifi, an unemployed industrial maintenance graduate. “Political parties make all kinds of promises. But it’s all just a joke.” To date, none of the candidates has come to see them. “We were the spark that triggered the revolution and we haven’t gotten anything out of it,” says Sliman.

It was here in 2008 that the first uprising against the regime took place. What began as a social conflict was later followed by a violent crackdown. Three people died. Hundreds were wounded. The whole region was under siege. Once again, it was the GPC’s hiring policies that triggered the problems. Local bigwigs, party leaders, pro-regime unions and the company chiefs handed out jobs to their friends. For more than a year, people stood up against the move through protests and sit-ins, refusing to give in to police raids.

Adnan Hjji, one of the leaders of the 2008 movement, believes nothing has changed since the fall of the regime. “The social demands that started the revolution haven’t been met. The policemen who tortured us were never punished. The government decided to pay compensation to the families of the Jan. 14 martyrs (the day Ben Ali fled the country), but here our victims didn’t get a dime.”

Adnan accuses the authorities of giving up on them. “In Redeyef, there is no local authority. The closest representative is in Gafsa, 70 kilometers from here. We only have four policemen who can’t even prevent a fight. Thefts and robberies are increasing.” 

Other tribal wars have rocked the mining basin as well. In El-Mdhilla, fights broke out recently after someone was spotted in a café drinking a glass of wine in broad daylight. In Essned, tribal conflict erupted following a squabble between two schoolchildren.

Metlaoui residents also feel abandoned. “We know who killed our brother,” says Ibrahim as he pulls out a list of about 20 names. “But we don’t trust the justice system. We gave them the videos. Only one person was held in custody because he took the blame to protect the others.”

Abdessalam Zeybi, a teacher, called the police when the attackers arrived. “They showed up hours later, and didn’t do anything. It was as if they had been ordered not to intervene.”

Some area residents suspect the clash between the Ouled Bou Yahya and Jerid tribes was sparked intentionally – to disrupt the election process and sabotage the transition. “It was former RCD (Ben Ali’s ruling party) members who spread the quota rumors. They want us to miss the Ben Ali era,” says one of the GPC directors.

Read more from Le Nouvel Observateur in French

Photo - Keith Roper

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