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Dispatch from Tunis: Teenagers and Salafists Storm the US Embassy

Teenagers with goggles and middle-aged Salafists with prayer rugs storm the US Embassy.

I'm a Middle Eastern Studies student from Wisconsin currently doing research in a suburb called Sidi bou Said. Today, just after lunch, I noticed a cloud of thick, black smoke rising on the horizon. Burning trash is fairly common here, so I didn’t think much of it. But on my way to class one of my classmates mentioned, half-joking, that it might be coming from the US Embassy. Our suspicions were confirmed when our Tunisian Arabic teacher plunged into a nervous breakdown during class.


The demonstrations in Tunisia today are being blamed on the now infamous Innocence of Muslims film, but the real reason behind them is the rhetoric of the current party in power. Nahdah (in Fus'ha Arabic, it means “Awakening” or “Renaissance”) is a popular Salafist (for lack of a better word, "Islamist") party that was elected last fall. After ousting the semi-secularist dictator Ben Ali from power, the Nahdah party was supposed to create a new constitution within a year. Nahdah has almost completely failed at this task, partly because of corruption and partly because most of its leaders have been rotting in jail for the past 20 years.

The talk among the progressive parties in Tunis is that the riots today were not only an attack on the US Embassy, but an attack on the Tunisian people. Today's attacks were a warning shot, and a pony show of the power of Nahdah. Of course, the ruling party would never corroborate this. Nahdah speaks out of both sides of its mouth. October 23rd, 2012 will be the end of Nahdah’s legitimacy and many think that today's attacks are a sign of their increasing desperation.

The US Embassy is located in Berg Du Lac, a smaller, less bourgeois suburb of Tunis, about 15 minutes away from my school. I hopped in my professor’s car and we sped towards the plume of smoke. As we approached the curtain of smoke, I saw young women and children running away from the Embassy, while teenagers and bearded Salafists ran towards it. The protesters were easy to pick out – they were dressed practically, suited up with any protection they could acquire, and in all-black uniform.


Armed with rocks and lighters, the teenagers were sprinting toward the scene, trailed by a group of middle-aged Salafists holding their prayer rugs, having just been riled out of Friday prayer. Closer to the riot, teenagers were trotting around in ragtag gangs, picking up half-filled tear gas canisters. A lot of them were wearing chemistry-class lab goggles, paired with a keffiyeh or a knock-off Ralph Lauren baseball cap. The relationship between the teenagers and the Salafists protesting today is extremely interesting. The poorer youth, with no prior religious affiliations, have turned to the Salafists, in an attempt to find a cause, to find some structure, or at least their share of the millions of dollars being funneled into Tunisia from the Gulf States.

I heard gunshots and tear-gas canisters popping as we drove up to the makeshift barricades the Salafists had cobbled together out of garbage, bikes and cars. We stopped to catch a glimpse of the mixture of burnt tires, tear gas and the remnants of the embassy gardens, but decided to high tail when the back end of our car was suddenly surrounded by a pack of protesters.

We headed to the American ambassadors house, which is located out in Sidi bou Said. Outside of his house I saw the remnants of street fires, and smelt burnt rubber. The military police surrounding his compound, with their grenade launchers and assault rifles, said that the protests had ended. My friend Brando, a Muslim convert from Chile, sat in the back seat of the car for our entire trip, and I looked back to notice him half-praying, half-crying.

The first Tunisian Revolution was carried out by the educated middle class, who fought to end corruption and petty authoritarianism. After Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, the Salafists were let out of jail and took advantage of the power vacuum. Now the progressives, who waged the Revolution, are pissed and despondent. Some of the youth in my neighbourhood even speak of bringing Ben Ali back – anything seems better than Nahdah’s reign. Three Salafists were killed today, and a curfew is currently in affect for certain parts of the city. There will most likely be retribution protests for the three that were killed. I don’t know what will happen in the coming weeks and month.

But I know that on October 23rd, 2012, Tunisia will no longer have a government any more, and we will all have to take to the streets again.