Mount Chaambi has been burning for four days now. At the foot of the mountain, in his house among the olive trees, Khaled Dalhoumi watches black smoke rise into the sky, as if Chaambi were a volcano.
On Friday, August 2, Dalhoumi woke to the distant sound of explosions. He went out his front door and saw bombs raining onto the mountains. Since then, he has heard shots and shelling at all hours, and at night the mountain is lit by the glow of massive forest fires. The mountain where Dalhoumi's father once mined for lead, and which has since been made a national park, has become a war zone. "It breaks my heart," he says.
Dalhoumi, 53, is an elementary school teacher and a unionist, a mild-mannered man with a mustache who is versed in Karl Marx's writings and supported the revolution. Now he struggles to understand what is happening with his mountain, his city, his country.
Mount Chaambi, 1,544 meters (5,066 feet) high, rises at the edge of Kasserine, a city in western Tunisia. It is close to the border with Algeria and a four hours' drive from the capital of Tunis. Kasserine is one of the places where the revolution began in December 2010, the revolution that would topple dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and set the Arab Spring in motion.
Now this has become a place where the Tunisian army is fighting Islamist terrorists. Although their backgrounds and identities remain unknown, these fighters have reportedly retreated to the mountains here. After they killed eight soldiers, the army has been striking back with all its might.
For Dalhoumi, the columns of smoke rising over Kasserine are a sign that something has gone fundamentally wrong with Tunisia's Arab Spring. "The revolution has gotten on the wrong track," he says.
The ones he holds responsible for this are the Islamists of the Ennahda party, which has governed the country in a coalition with two secular parties since elections were held two years ago. Dalhoumi believes that Ennahda and its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, have no interest in taking action against extremists. "Before, it was: Ben Ali does whatever he wants, and no one can say anything about it," he says. "Now it's: The Islamists do whatever they want, and the others can say whatever they want about it."
For Dalhoumi, it's all interconnected -- the anger and hopelessness felt by people in Kasserine and throughout the country, the terrorists on the mountain, the unsolved murders of two opposition politicians and, of course, the military coup in Egypt. The result of all this has been that, within a short period of time, Tunisia's complicated but hopeful transition to democracy has come to a standstill, and the country has plunged into a serious crisis. Last week, work on the country's new constitution was suspended, even though this is the gridlocked parliament's main task.
The Religious-Secular Divide
The burning mountain serves as a symbol for this political crisis. On the mountain, as in the country's politics, the circumstances are murky and all involved in the conflict fashion their own interpretations of reality, with suspicions taking the place of facts.
One thing can be said for certain: On July 25, left-wing politician Mohamed Brahmi was fatally shot in front of his house in a Tunis suburb, in front of his wife and daughter. Witnesses later said they had seen two men on a motorcycle. The attack recalled the murder of another leading opposition politician half a year earlier: Chokri Belaïd was also shot in front of his apartment -- and apparently with the same weapon, as the country's Interior Ministry has now disclosed. Both murder victims were outspoken critics of political Islam. Official statements say there are 14 suspects, who are believed to have ties to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Brahmi's murder triggered a chain reaction. Thousands gathered the same day on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis to protest the government, at precisely the same place where the protests against Ben Ali's regime took place in early 2011. Police used tear gas, and the demonstrators moved on to gather in front of the parliamentary building in the Le Bardo district.
There, in the following days, both supporters and opponents of Ennahda gathered for demonstrations -- two Tunisias side by side, separated by barbed wire. On the opponents' side were well-to-do youth from the suburbs, in tight jeans and expensive T-shirts, while bearded men and women in headscarves filled the Islamists' side. But then, too, it was sometimes the other way around. There were the two pretty, un-veiled sisters on Ennahda's side, screaming that the opposition is trying to bring about a coup, and the veiled old woman among the secularists, saying this is not the Islam she wants.
The opposition's demonstrations in the Le Bardo district have been larger, as this side could mobilize more supporters in the capital. In response, on Saturday, August 3, Ennahda transported tens of thousands of supporters from all around the country into the city. Then, on Wednesday, the opposition countered with a large-scale demonstration of its own. Each side cited "Google Earth calculations" afterwards and unrealistically high numbers in an attempt to prove that its demonstration was the biggest.
The Islamist government's largely secular opponents are calling for the immediately dissolution of the country's elected Constituent Assembly. Most would rather see a government made up of independent technocrats. Ennahda may not have actually hired the individuals who killed the two opposition politicians, the party's opponents say, but they still hold the government at least politically responsible for the murders because, they say, it was too hesitant in dealing with the extremists. Opponents also accuse the Constituent Assembly of far exceeding its one-year mandate.
The opposition parties have also taken up at least parts of the demonstrators' demands, with around a third of their representatives boycotting the assembly. The situation resembles the one in Egypt: The country is divided, with Islamists on one side, their opponents on the other and a deep chasm between them. And here, too, a democratically elected government led by Islamists now faces mass demonstrations calling for them to resign.
Unlike in Egypt, however, Tunisia's army has no political ambitions. But here there is the powerful UGTT trade union, which played a decisive role during the revolution and is exerting pressure on the Islamists in the current conflict, as well.
Moadh Ghannouchi is sitting in his father's large office at Ennahda's headquarters. The party leader's son grew up in exile in the UK and now serves as his father's chief of staff. He speaks British English and is quick to deny Ennahda's responsibility for the murders. Rather, he blames the opposition for the current situation, which he says wants an Egyptian-style coup. But unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Ghannouchi points out, Ennahda has always been willing to compromise, creating a coalition with secularists and agreeing to refrain from making Sharia law part of any new constitution.
For Ghannouchi, an Islamist, the opposition represents the country's old, Western-influenced elite, which he feels refuses to accept that it no longer has the sole say. Since these secularists can't secure power by democratic means, he says, now they're trying to do so by other ones. It has become apparent, he adds, that the opposition doesn't want to allow Islam absolutely any role in politics, no matter how democratically the Islamists were elected. Ghannouchi appears disenchanted to find that it hasn't paid off for Ennahda to play by the rules. Many Islamists in Tunisia are making the same arguments.
Most secularists, meanwhile, are united by a fear that the Islamists have a secret agenda. "The Ennahda people aren't democrats; they only want to cling to power," says Béji Caïd Essebsi, founder of the most significant opposition party, Nida Tunis ("Call of Tunisia"). This newly formed party brings together leftists, liberals and some members of the former ruling RCD party. It also stands to gain the most from the current protests. If the chronically unreliable polls can be trusted, were elections held today, Nida Tunis would replace Ennahda as the strongest party.
There is hammering and construction still going on throughout the party's new headquarters in the affluent neighborhood of Berges du Lac, where Essebsi sits tiredly in an armchair. He once worked for Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first post-independence president. Essebsi also served temporarily as prime minister after the 2011 revolution. Now, for many of Ennahda's opponents, he is their last hope.
Essebsi gives little credence to the Islamists' claim to democratic legitimacy. He believes their mandate has expired. The parties did agree before the election to limit work on the constitution to one year, but that timeline was unrealistic from the start.
Essebsi wants to put "independent types" in charge of governing the country until elections are held in December. "If Ennahda doesn't agree, we risk an Egyptian scenario," he says, adding that Ennahda is almost like the Muslim Brotherhood and must agree to negotiate. It sounds like a threat.
Silence, Conspiracies and Fear
Essebsi, 86, and Ennahda head Rachid Ghannouchi, 72, are currently the country's most important political opponents. In a country where the youth created the revolution, it is old men who are now overseeing the transition to democracy. In Tunis especially, young people are frustrated that things are taking so long and even developing a sort of nostalgia for the days of the revolution. Hardly anyone knows what is happening in the country, but everyone wants to have a say, and this creates a mixture on the streets of truth and suspicion, hysteria and fear, rumors and anger.
In the liberals' eyes, the Islamists are to blame for mounting violence in the country. Ennahda has close ties to Salafists and to the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, the party's opponents say. It's true that some extremists have been set free under the current government, and that the government initially didn't seem like it wanted to take action against radicals.
In the weeks since the second murder, though, there have been more and more reports about finding weapons, arresting terrorists and foiling alleged plans for attack. Videos showing police operations are circulated. But since the authorities offer no information, many Tunisians are unsure what to believe. The army also doesn't comment on what is happening in the Chaambi mountains and keeps journalists away from the area, which only serves to fuel the conspiracy theories. Depending on whom you ask, the force behind all these threats is al-Qaida, or Ennahda, the old regime, the leftists, France, Qatar, Israel, Algeria or some combination of the above.
Many among the opposition deny Ennahda's legitimacy, saying the party's electoral victory was bought from the start, although there is no proof to back up this claim. Others believe the draft constitution's mention of Islam as the "state religion" will lead directly to Sharia law, even though similar phrasing existed in the previous constitution. More than anything, the opposition fears the Islamists may soon control the administration and the Interior Ministry, which once formed the core of the country's oppression and surveillance apparatus. But doesn't every government try to fill positions with its own people, especially after decades of dictatorship?
Losing Faith in Democracy
In Kasserine, the city in the shadow of the smoking mountain 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Tunis, few people take an interest in the power struggle in the capital. Here, in the country's neglected interior, is where the Arab Spring began. And people here are still just as frustrated as the young people who first set the revolution in motion in nearby Sidi Bouzid in December 2010.
Twenty-seven young men from the region around Kasserine died in the revolution, and many here are proud of their part in toppling the dictator. But in the poor neighborhood of Ennour, from which many of those who were killed came, young people today say it is still easier for them to steal than to find a job. Most don't have the necessary education, and even those who do aren't much better off.
Rabeh, 20, just earned his pre-university degree and is out in Kasserine's city center with two friends. The three say they all either voted for Ennahda in the election or at least sympathized with the Islamists -- but that is now all part of the past.
"They've done nothing for two years," says Rabeh. He had hoped to find work, but says things have only gotten worse. Construction jobs in Kasserine pay seven dinar for a day of work, equal to a little over €3 ($4). And even these jobs are growing harder to find. Rabeh says he'll vote for Nida Tunis next time -- but he also says that, in general, he no longer believes in democracy. "These are people who are made for a dictator," he says.
Rabeh's brother, he says, is now in Rome, after making the crossing to Europe in a boat, and many of his friends and relatives have done the same. Rabeh's friend Houssem, who studies in the Tunisian coastal resort city of Monastir, adds that he's turned down several offers from older European women who wanted to send him money or bring him to Germany. But two of his cousins took up such offers and are now married to older women and waiting in Rome for their Italian citizenship to come through.
Houssem doesn't think much of the demonstrations going on in Tunis or of the calls to dissolve the Constituent Assembly. He doesn't feel any particular connection to the demonstrators from the suburbs surrounding Tunis. Even so, he is still opposed to mixing politics and Islam.
Increasing Restraints on Women
One of Houssem's childhood friends has become a Salafist and is constantly lecturing him about not touching or even talking to women. At his university in Monastir, Salafists are also growing more influential. For example, they have succeeded in making the university cafeteria split into sections exclusively for men and women. Throughout the country, a segment of the population noticeably identifies more strongly with religion than before the revolution. Outside of Tunis, there are very few women left who don't wear a headscarf.
Mariam Rabhi, 20, is one of those few in Kasserine. She is sitting with her mother, Mounira, in a restaurant in the city center around midnight. This is highly unusual, not because of the time -- this is during Ramadan -- but because women are a rare sight on the streets here, and even rarer in cafés.
"I'm gradually becoming the minority in my age group," says Rabhi, a student of French literature. "Most women start wearing a headscarf when they finish school so their parents will let them attend university." Indeed, it is women, she says, who excel at school and get into university, while the young men are nearly all unemployed.
A Full Spectrum of Disappointment
Just around the corner, at Café Total, there are no women. Here, four men sit under a eucalyptus tree, where they gather almost every evening to talk. All four voted for the Islamists, and three of them are deeply disappointed, although not all for the same reasons.
Badredine Fridhi, 41, had had enough of the secularists who were in power for decades, but now he is frustrated with Ennahda. Purchasing power is dropping, he says, and people don't have money anymore. Fridhi, who sells construction materials, says business is bad.
Across from him sits Mongi Bouazi, 58, who works at a vocational training center and disagrees with Fridhi. "All change takes time," he says. "The French Revolution took decades. We can't judge a government after less than two years." Bouazi says he would vote for Ennahda again, although he feels the government needs to take tougher action against the constant strikes in Tunisia, regardless of whether there is freedom of speech or not. As to the demonstrators in Tunis, he says: "They want a coup!"
The third man is also named Mongi, last name Yahyaoui. For the last four years, the 39-year-old has been smuggling gasoline from Algeria into Tunisia, which he says is by far the most lucrative job around. And although the smuggling is illegal and takes place more or less in plain sight, the police don't do anything about it. On the one hand, that's good for him. But, on the other, Yahyaoui would like to pursue a legal line of work again. But there are hardly any such jobs in Kasserine, he complains, adding: "And the people from Ennahda only think of their own interests."
The fourth man in the group, Ridha Abdelli, 45, is a French teacher and says he could not vote for any other party. "We vote for those who are for Islam. Our religion obliges us to do so," he says. But he admits to being very disappointed that Ennahda hasn't tried to anchor Sharia law in the constitution.
Not far from the café, Khaled Dalhoumi stands at the foot of the smoking mountain and says he too has lost his faith in democracy. Democracy doesn't work in countries with such poverty, he says. "Votes are bought. And the Islamists will only hold elections once." Dalhoumi believes it was a mistake to let them obtain power through elections in the first place.
Opposition leaders in Tunis would never express that sentiment as explicitly as the man at the foot of Chaambi Mountain. But many of them must be secretly having very similar thoughts.