Screen grab of a Salafist demonstration in Sidi Bouzid in May. Original video posted on YouTube.
Tunisia’s western city of Sidi Bouzid is now dry. The last remaining bar was forced to close earlier this week after it was ransacked by a mob of religious extremists. Although the establishment had long been targeted by threats, its owner chose to keep his doors open, believing the local authorities’ promises to protect his business.
Chanting “al-Charab haram” (“alcohol is sin”), dozens of Salafists burst into Sidi Bouzid’s Horchani hotel on Monday, September 3. The throng of men quickly homed in on the hotel’s liquor stock, seizing bottles of alcohol and throwing them against the walls or smashing them on the floor.
The incident comes around four months after the city’s Salafist community first launched a war against alcohol consumption, pressuring or intimidating several bars into shutting down. Those who tried to resist saw their businesses come under attack, much like the Horchani hotel.
Local authorities have shown reluctance to officially condemn the acts. After a string of violence incidents in May, Sidi Bouzid’s governor actually urged businesses serving alcohol to relocate out of the city centre, as a way to move them out of the sight of mosques, as well as women and children.
The governor’s comments were applauded by some residents, many of whom support the Salafist’s “cleansing” efforts. There have even been incidents where residents called Salafists to complain about noise coming, for the most part, from venues selling alcohol without the appropriate license.
The Horchani hotel.
“Since the police can no longer ensure our safety, I am thinking about hiring a private security company, like in Iraq”
Jamil Horchani is the owner of the Horchani hotel.
It was 1pm when the ‘beards’ broke down the hotel doors. Some of them went upstairs to ransack the rooms, while others went to destroy the kitchens and attack the bar. They broke everything and even stole money and some of my personal belongings, since I live in the hotel. The clients were traumatised. We even had to bring a couple of tourists to the hospital because they were in shock.Boxes of alcohol thrown into the hotel's fountain.“Despite the threats, the government had encouraged me to keep my bar open, telling me they would ensure my security”This was not the first time that Salafists have targeted my hotel. Several days before Ramadan, in July, they sent me death threats. They warned me that if I continued to sell alcohol, they would attack me and my hotel. I filed a complaint and the public prosecutor launched an investigation into the threats, which has apparently not led to much… When my hotel was attacked, I recognised some of the faces. They belonged to the men who had threatened me about a month and a half ago. They are acting with complete impunity.The vandalised hotel bar. All photos courtesy of our Observer.I never thought about closing my bar – except during Ramadan – specifically because the government had assured me that my bar and I would be safe. The governor and the police chief encouraged me to stay open, saying that they would ensure my security and that of the bar. When I filed a complaint the first time, they told me Islamists would not attack me because I had a license and because the hotel is far from the city centre. I’m actually based near the entrance to Sidi Bouzid, which is not at all residential. I thought I would be spared.“I feel like the police and the government have completely abandoned me”I feel like the police and the government have completely abandoned me. Yesterday, we called the police as soon as the Salafists broke into the hotel. They were there for more than 30 minutes, destroying everything, and the police only arrived after they had left.I am seriously considering paying for a private security company, like in Iraq, to protect my establishment. If the authorities can no longer guarantee our safety, we will all eventually be forced to hire private security to defend ourselves.
[Tunisian comedian Lotfi Abdelli, who contributed to an Observers article published in August, has hired a private security detail after receiving death threats from Salafists].