The Battle for Bizerte 47:00, 2013 (Ref: ME13809)



For years, the Arab world’s dictators kept radical Islamic groups in check, but the uprisings of 2011 gave them freedom to operate more openly.

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, a tiny but well-organised minority of fundamentalists, some of them violent, have mounted a major challenge to the state. Their influence is growing and the new democratic Government is struggling to assert its authority.

The leader of the organisation is a softly-spoken former jihadi fighter with a long grey beard called Abdesslam Sharif. In this documentary we see that he has set up a make-shift court of law in his clothes kiosk in the Tunisian sea-side town of Bizerte and became increasingly popular with local people.

And it posed a serious challenge to the authority of the state. Using Islamic law, he ruled on all manner of issues.

One well-dressed woman came to try to prevent her husband divorcing her – and keeping the family home for himself and his mistress.

The parents of a 14-year-old boy brought a man they accused of taking their son’s mobile phone – and trying to seduce him. Even a retired policeman preferred Abdesslam’s justice to that of the state, asking him to remove a tenant from his flat.

In each case, Abdesslam and his followers solved the problems with an efficiency many say the state can’t match. The woman and her husband stayed together. The boy got his phone back – and his alleged pursuer now rarely leaves his home. The tenant was “threatened” – it’s not clear how – and moved out.

But for the authorities, it was Abdesslam himself who was the problem. And in June they solved it – by bulldozing his unofficial law court. As our film shows, all that remains now of his kiosk are a few scraps of twisted steel embedded in the pavement.

Abdesslam himself has fled – some say to Libya, some say to Mali. But the threat he posed to the state hasn’t completely gone away and similar organisations are growing in power in Egypt & Libya – where their country’s dictators have also been overthrown.