Addressing the socio-economic question is crucial to Tunisia’s long and arduous battle against ISIL terrorism.
After the Jasmine Revolution ousted former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power, Mehdi decided to take a new direction with his life.
His economic situation had not improved. He would walk from his home in Douar Hicher, a suburb outside Tunis, to a nearby cafe and then back again, day after day. He wanted to start afresh.
Disenchanted by the revolution’s failure to bring substantive change, many young Tunisians turned towards extremism in the years that followed. According to a report by the Soufan Group, the security intelligence service, by October 2015, an estimated 6,000 fighters had travelled to Syria from Tunisia.
Groups of young people would just disappear from their neighbourhoods. In April 2012, Mehdi joined them, traveling to Libya to take part in what he considered a “holy war”.
Mehdi, who is now 26 and spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym, spent more than four months in a training camp in Sirte, in an old army barracks. On Tuesdays and Fridays he practised shooting.
Today, it is hard to picture Mehdi with a gun; perhaps it is his slight stature, or the candid smile that often dominates his face.
But in 2012, he spent his days dismantling and assembling Kalashnikovs, running, praying and playing football. He says that he earned a salary of $3,000 a month. “We had to be paid,” Mehdi says, “because they knew that in some families, fighters were the only breadwinners.”
Mehdi, who was trained as an electrical engineer, had been unemployed since 2008. He had tried his luck as a day labourer, but never got more than a few days of work a month. Unemployment exceeds 15 percent in Tunisia, and for young people like Mehdi, the situation is even worse.
Surviving day after day without achieving anything can be painful and enraging. “At that time, I really hated Tunisia, especially because of the unemployment,” Mehdi said. “I swear to God, 90 percent of the people who join [terror groups], Tunisians, especially from my neighbourhood, have nothing else to do, and that is the worst.”
While in the training camp, however, Mehdi started to miss his mother. “She sent me a message; she was crying,” he recalled. His mother had already lost one son: Marwan, Mehdi’s older brother, left to fight in Iraq in 2003 and has not been heard from since 2007.
“I could not bear to see her like that. She is 60; I did not want her to be alone any more, so I came back. That was the only reason.”
After his return, Mehdi managed to borrow some money to start his own workshop. Now, surrounded by old shower hoses and rusty appliances, he says he would never go back.
It was a Saturday morning in October 2013 when Naziha Bel Jayyed missed the call.
She was outside doing laundry when the phone rang. It was her daughter who listened to the words: “Be happy, sister; Mohammad is a martyr.”
Just days earlier, Naziha’s son, Mohammad Bel Behi Jlassi, 27, had left the family home in Ettadhamen, a suburb in northwestern Tunis, to work as a pastry chef in a Libyan hotel.
He had worked there in the past, before the 2011 uprising. After reaching Tripoli, he called his mother to let her know that he was fine and settling in. Then came seven days of silence; his phone was switched off.
And then another call came: He was in Syria.
“I swear, mom, I am coming back home and I will tell you everything,” Mohammad said.
But he never made it home. Today, two large portraits of Mohammad hang in the living room.
Nothing in her son’s behaviour before his departure could have led Naziha to believe that he would join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). He was a happy child who loved to take care of small animals and watch Popeye the Sailor Man and The Lion King. After he graduated from high school, he started working, baking sweets. In his free time, he would make sandwiches and sell them on the street.
“When I was going to work, he would get on his bicycle, follow the bus I was on, and when I got off, he would come give me a kiss and then return home,” Naziha recalled, with a rare smile. The suffering and long hours spent crying are etched on her face, and her hands – the same ones that used to caress her son’s cheeks – are restless in her lap.
Mohammad was the one who always made the family laugh, entertaining them during holidays and when they had guests. “After his death, the house is sad; the walls are crying.”
For more than a year after receiving the devastating news, Naziha thought about taking her own life. She imagined banging her head against the walls, jumping in front of a car, or setting herself on fire. She was determined to do it, but gradually began convincing herself that her son may still be alive, as she never received any confirmation of his death.
The uncertainty has been consuming her: “I am alone and helpless, fighting alone.”
Last March, Naziha took her fight a step further. She was panelist at a conference in Lebanon called “Women on the Front Lines”, alongside other women whose relatives joined extremist groups. Telling her story may not bring her son back, she explained, but it could help others to deal with the pain of losing a loved one.
Mohamed Zorgui walked on the rubble from a house in his neighbourhood of el-Karma, where two days before soldiers had killed two suspected armed fighters after an all-night gun fight.
Many young people milled around the area, checking out the mortar holes and blood stains on the wall. Zorgui’s Ray-Bans and bright cyan T-shirt featuring Cristiano Ronaldo contrasted against the grey, bullet-scarred walls.
In Kasserine, an impoverished governorate about 300km southwest of Tunis, Zorgui is a star. His rap lyrics criticise both ISIL and the state: “There is no work or shoulders to lean on / When I see my family’s situation, my heart breaks / I keep everything inside and keep quiet / I cry, but I don’t show it.”
People in Kasserine, who face an unemployment rate of more than 30 percent, were among the first to take to the streets in 2011. Zorgui, who could not find work in Tunisia, travelled to France illegally, but was deported two years later.
In May 2013, after a fight between residents in two neighbourhoods ended with one person badly injured, he was arrested and put in jail for 13 months. It was there that he says he was introduced to prisoners with an extremist ideology – men who incited others to kill and commit violence against the “tyrant” state. They began teaching him how to make bombs.
As he observed their behaviour, Zorgui began having doubts about their view of Islam. The final awakening came shortly before he was released, when they told him to kill his brother-in-law because he worked for the military – a man who was always nice to him, brought him food and drove his mother over to visit. Zorgui was shocked.
Upon his release from prison, Zorgui turned to music, writing a rap song about his experiences in prison and a documentary about recruitment in jails. The documentary, entitled Labyrinth, created a stir in Tunisia, prompting prison authorities to contact Zorgui to discuss methods of countering the problem, he said.
Zorgui, who goes by the stage name “Mohamed Gladiator”, then began performing in jails, talking about his experience and rapping about flaws in the prison system.
“It’s the first time this has happened in Tunisia, a rapper criticising the system and guards inside a jail,” he said. “Prisoners loved it.”
But rap music does not get him through the month, and there is no other job in sight.
“I’m 26 years old and still get pocket money from my parents,” Zorgui said. “What should I do, steal? It is very easy for me to get half a kilo of weed, cut it and sell it, and then I’m a drug dealer.
“Even outside, we are in prison. We haven’t got the right to do anything. We sleep, we eat, we rest, and that’s all.”
In el-Kabaria, a poor neighbourhood of Tunis, Ahmed Sassi sat at the computer in his family’s kiosk, just across the road from the tram line.
The 31-year-old, who has a master’s degree in political philosophy, was one of only two people from his high-school graduating class to go to university.
Various products fill the shelves of the little kiosk: flour, croissants, juice, bubble gum, nappies, shampoo, coloured ribbons and many more. In an adjacent room, people from the neighbourhood often gather to talk about their problems.
“The revolution in Tunisia was done with the slogan: work, freedom and national dignity,” Sassi told Al Jazeera. “So it was not political freedom alone – it was work and socioeconomic rights that the young Tunisians demanded. But their demands fell on deaf ears of the state, of the decision-makers of this country.”
More than 600,000 people are jobless in Tunisia, with a third of university graduates unemployed. Sassi is just one of them.
“When you find yourself useless in your society, with so much energy, with so many dreams, with your knowledge, your intelligence – when you have the will to build things and you find that all the doors before you are closed, you will get really disappointed,” he said.
Sassi says he is not concerned by the large number of Tunisian fighters who are now abroad and may one day come back, but instead with the much larger number of people who could become radicalised in the future.
“Fighting terrorism in Tunisia is fighting unemployment, fighting ignorance, fighting poverty, fighting corruption, fighting indignity and injustice,” Sassi said, as he gently petted a grey kitten named Castro.
What he fears even more is that, in the name of fighting terrorism, the country could return to the former security structure and police abuses that existed under Ben Ali. Having lived all his life in this neighbourhood, Sassi saw police brutality then, and he sees it again now, particularly among people from underprivileged backgrounds. Sassi’s neighbours in el-Kabaria live in fear, he says.
Graffiti just behind his family’s kiosk stands as evidence: It depicts a stylised, pig-headed man in a police uniform, with handcuffs in one hand and a stick in the other.