ETTADHAMEN, Tunisia — Charred cars, vandalised shops, roadblocks made of garbage and manure have made this town nearly unrecognisable were it not for Islamists who have taken action to re-establish calm and order.
Ettadhamen, a deprived district outside Tunis, is one of several areas across the country that has been rocked with violence over the past several days, prompting authorities to declare an overnight curfew in the capital Saturday.
The district was at the centre of protests in January during the uprising that led to the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but a series of protests against the transitional government have flared up recently.
Residents said youths had ransacked and pillaged a major electrical goods store and a pharmacy and set fire to several vehicles the previous day.
Amid thin police presence in Ettadhamen, the Islamist group Ennahda (Awakening) took action to prevent pillages and restore order, said a member and residents.
Ennahda “has deployed a number of volunteers to protect people from looting”, explained Saber, a member of the movement which the interim government legalised after decades of being banned by the Ben Ali regime.
“We are not replacing the police. We are simply trying to talk to these youth and to prevent them from turning violent or looting. Everyday we coordinate among ourselves. We are doing all this for the good of the country.”
“Our role is to protect and to give a sense of responsibility to young people with good words,” he added.
Thari, a cafe owner, recalled a “night of chaos despite the curfew”.
“It was horrible. The streets were black with people. They worked in groups, and some were armed with knives. They searched all the cars that passed by and when drivers refused to stop they smashed their windows,” he added.
A helicopter armed with a powerful searchlight hovered above the district during the night and took photos of troublemakers, but faced with the violence “law enforcement officials just vanished”, he added.
One resident, Ali, said: “It was the Islamists who took action the most to restore calm and who recovered stolen goods, stocking them in a mosque to return them to their owners.”
Another man named Ali, whose ancient pottery shop was pillaged, said the chaos erupted late in the evening and lasted into the early hours of Sunday.
“They are between 14 and 20 years old, some with gashes in their face. They just want to take advantage of the disorder to have fun,” he added, showing the shattered remains of his wares.
In the smashed-up streets of Ettadhamen veiled women hurry along with their children in front of stalls where sheep carcasses hang with their throats slit. Some solders, with dark rings under their eyes, take a breather at cafes.
“We are more and more scared every day,” said a young woman whose father accompanies her after work because of the unrest.
Nearby, an old man held his head in his hands wailing: “Tunisia is crashing into a wall.”