This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Last August, Ons and Ahlam Delhoumi were in a car on their way back from a party to the provincial Tunisian town of Kasserine. Suddenly, men in dark clothes and masks stepped out onto the road from reeds that lined both sides of the street.
The two women may have thought that the shadowy figures were drug traffickers or jihadists that operate along the nearby Algerian border. The men who stepped into the street, however, were police. Taking the Delhoumis for criminals or extremists, they fired on the car.
Ahlam died immediately from a bullet to the head. Ons died after she arrived at a hospital with no doctors or nurses.
Kasserine is not unlike Sidi Bouzid, another interior town. In late 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself there after suffering humiliation at the hands of the police, who had confiscated the scales and fruit he had bought on credit and consequently robbed him of his livelihood. Protests over his death spread to the capital and sent President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing, triggering a wave of revolutions among the downtrodden all over the region.
Today Tunisia is the only place where post–Arab Spring democracy seems doable. Its elections in October were a far cry from the show vote that installed Egyptian military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president last summer.
At the most recent polls, Tunisian voters awarded a plurality of seats to Nidaa Tounes, or “the Call of Tunisia”—a party that gathered secular forces under one umbrella—but didn’t give it a clear majority. Now Nidaa Tounes will have to form a majority government.
It’s a promising transition, but one that could fall apart.
Kasserine’s policemen were jumpy for good reason. Jihadists have regularly killed police and soldiers here. Firefights happen almost every other day and drones fly overhead, searching the scrub and prickly pear in what looks like the Colorado foothills for jihadis moving across the mountains. The Delhoumis are only two of the many innocent victims of this battle.
The interior of Tunisia is poor, and the state is weaker there than in the coastal cities. These conditions make the area a perfect recruiting ground for Tunisians who want to become jihadists either at home or abroad. Some 3,000 Tunisians are fighting in Syria, and the Interior Ministry says that it has prevented 8,000 more from traveling there.
In the leadup to the election, secularists tried to tie Ennahda—the moderate Islamist party that had previously run the government—to Salafi jihadists. At the polls, voters for Nidaa Tounes—a coalition of former regime figures, leftists and former leftists that gathered together to challenge Ennahda—repeated these charges.