Tunis - Just a few blocks from the hotels, the restaurants, and the government offices, Balancine is a labyrinth filled with piles of garbage and stray dogs. Teenage boys are lying around, laughing, some of them drunk.
We came here to find the new radical Islam which has become so popular since the Arab Spring. This is the house we are looking for. Going up a dark and slippery staircase, which smells of urine, sawdust and ammonia, we arrive at the third floor. We enter a darkened room, lit by a single dim light bulb hanging from the ceiling. A curtain is barely hiding the dirty toilet. A big couch, which also serves as a bed, occupies almost all the room. A 22-year-old man, Yusef, is sitting cross-legged on the couch.
We have come to meet him before he leaves for Jihad in Syria. He is a Salafi Islamist, part of a movement that is fast becoming a major player in the region. This is not the pragmatic secularized Islam, nor the social democracy of the Muslim Brotherhood or of the moderate Ennahda movement (the Renaissance Party) whom the Western world found so reassuring after the Arab revolutions.
Yusef is set to leave for Syria to fight Bashir al-Assad's unholy regime. Other young Tunisians have already joined the jihad, recruited in the city's most radical mosques, and given a ticket to Turkey, along with directions on how to reach the army of rebels. "There are many other brothers: Egyptian, Libyan, Algerian," says Yusef. Similar international Muslim brigades fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia.
Yusef doesn't look at us as he lays out his life story: poverty, the school, petty crimes to survive -- and finally the revolution.
He is one among many other " street thugs" from the slums who have kept the revolution alive in the streets, under the blows and tear gas. When asked if he is scared of a war which, at the end of the day is not his own, the boy suddenly comes to life: " You don't know anything," he says. "Fear, courage... My strength is not in weapons. It is inside. I am an instrument. Muslims had become dependent on the things that you gave and taught us. This is our rebirth. How can we be afraid of a tyrant's army? Don't you see that God is helping us? God moved the Americans' minds. The Americans are helping, arming and funding us. They are an instrument of the holy cause."
I wonder if Yusef knows that a few days ago two other young Tunisian men were captured with explosives and weapons and paraded on Syrian television. Maybe he does, but it does not matter.
On May 20, more than 20,000 Salafi Islamists gathered in the Tunisian city of Kairouan. There are rumors about them, almost certainly false, that they are training an army. But what's true is that Salafis in combat gear are patrolling Tunis' "park of love," where young couples meet up, behind a luxury hotel that Gadhafi's son was building. The Salafis sometimes raid the park to stop acts they consider to be impure. In Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid, the Salafis attacked and burned down bars that sold alcoholic drinks.
Ihmed Zouhari, another young man, is one of the heads of the Hezb el Tahrir, a radical party that is run like a sect. They hate the Muslim Brotherhood and don't believe democracy has its place in Islamic society.
"We've tried everything: liberalism, dictatorships, nationalism, socialism. What did we get? Poverty and corruption. The only thing that stayed pure is Islam," believes Zouhari. "We need a radical change, a new system based on the Islamic doctrine and the Koran, and then we will unite all the Arab and Muslim countries under the same flag."
Asked how a doctrine that was born centuries ago can work in the modern world, he has no doubts: "You don't understand. Your democracy works for you because you live in a world where people can't decide on a political model, where ideology serves only to seize power and changes according to what is needed. Here, we don't have political parties, only Islam. You say that this is the Middle Ages. I ask you: have men really changed since then?"