Election offers little hope in Tunisia’s militancy-hit Kasserine

Many in the impoverished city of Kasserine are deeply frustrated at increasing violence perpetrated by suspected militants and doubt that parliamentary elections on Sunday will do anything to improve their lot.

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KASSERINE, Tunisia // When Hisham Missaoui was seriously wounded tracking suspected Al Qaeda-linked militants near Kasserine, his family blocked the road to the restive Tunisian city with burning tyres and rubble.

Mired in poverty, Kasserine lies at the foot of Mount Chaambi, where the army and police have since 2012 been hunting down Islamist militants blamed for deadly attacks on security forces.

Mr Missaoui’s family said the government failed him after he was shot earlier this year and left paralysed, demanding that he be taken abroad for treatment so that he might walk again.

Like many in this community in western Tunisia, they are deeply frustrated at increasing violence perpetrated by suspected militants and doubt that parliamentary elections on Sunday will do anything to improve their lot.

“Terrorism started after the revolution. We didn’t expect to see it in Tunisia,” said Mr Missaoui’s brother Karim.

“What happened to him could happen to me tomorrow. And when you see how he was treated by the government, you ask yourself what it’s all for,” said a policeman in Kasserine who declined to be named.

Since the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has seen a proliferation of Islamists suppressed under the former autocratic president and the emergence of militant Islamist groups.

They have been blamed for a wave of attacks, including last year’s assassination of two leftist politicians whose murders plunged the country into a protracted political crisis.

The anti-militant campaign, consisting of sporadic air strikes and ground attacks, has failed to rout them from Mount Chaambi and over the past two years dozens of soldiers and police have been killed.

The militants are well trained and armed – unlike Tunisian forces who say they do not have the proper tools to combat them.

“How do you face someone who is properly equipped? Who has the latest model of bulletproof jackets, weapons and RPGs [rocket propelled-grenades]?” said Mohamed Omri, spokesman for a local branch of the union of internal security forces.

He said security forces were seriously outgunned though “recently the situation has become better”.

The fight against militants has become a favourite talking point for political parties looking to win votes here ahead of the general elections on October 26.

But Kasserine residents say a big part of the problem is that the country’s politicians have already failed the town’s youth, with high unemployment and poverty leaving young people without hope nearly four years after the revolution.

“If there were positive things in Kasserine – development, factories, jobs – there wouldn’t be any problem,” said Bilel Nasri, a young unemployed man.

But if young people “cannot afford to buy books and clothes they’ll go down a bad path. They’ll do something bad, not just terrorism,” he said.

A seamstress who declined to give her name said her teenaged son told her he did not need an education to earn money.

“What is the point of studying? You should buy me a pickup truck, I could work in contraband. At least I’d earn some money,” she quoted her son as saying.

Others warn that Islamic extremism has taken hold in Kasserine and will be very hard to uproot.

“Terrorism? It comes from people who live among us,” a housewife said, also declining to give her name.

“A mother will not denounce her son if he goes off to the mountain to fight. Even if she does not agree with him she will take him in with his comrades and feed them,” she said.

Hosni Bouazza said he did not expect the upcoming election to change anything.

“I have no confidence in any of the candidates,” said the 26-year-old school supervisor.

“None of them will do any good in Kasserine. They are only after power. And for us, this means more depression, disappointment and poverty,” he said.

* Agence France-Presse