Battle for Bizerte

17 tourists killed in Tunisia Islamist museum shooting

Battle for Bizerte The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2010, but the battle for hearts and minds still rages. Ultra-conservative Islamists known as Salafists want the country to be run along strict Koranic lines. Their influence is growing and the democratic Government is struggling to assert its authority.
Groups of conservative men prowl the streets of Bizerte, seeking those who flout traditional Islamic values. They harass an unmarried woman in male company, beat a drunk with an iron chain and collar a local drug dealer. They belong to a Salafist group the Ansar Al Suna, reporting to jihadi veteran Abdesslam Sharif, who dispenses Islamic justice from his market kiosk.

In Abdesslam's shop we meet people petitioning for help with errant husbands or thieves. He advises a child molester: "Leave this way of life and repent or next time I'll do the same to you!" Abdesslam's men recover stolen property and divert sinners to mosque. So some call them "sweet as lambs" and praise their good deeds. But thousands of Salafists were arrested under Ben Ali and the police still treat them with suspicion.

And victims of Salafist violence aren't hard to find. Mohammed "couldn't breathe for months", beaten for leafleting for the secular Workers Party. Another man was horrifically disfigured with swords for drinking beer. Abdesslam is unruffled, claiming the police "aren't doing their job" and calling for "God's law" to be established across the world. Like many Salafists he considers international jihad an obligation.

But the struggle between extremists and moderates tears families apart. A broken mother weeps for her son who disappeared to fight in Syria. Traced to a Damascus jail he acknowledges the rashness of his decision to go after being inspired by TV images.

The Interior Minister says the state is trying to take control and Abdesslam is called in for questioning. He disappears, rumoured to be fighting jihad in Mali. The police may destroy his shop but not his ideology.

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