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President’s racist rhetoric sparks fear among black Tunisians

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Picture: AFP – Sub-Saharan African women look for clothes at a thrift store in the market of Ariana, on the outskirts of Tunis, this week. A prominent rights group accused Tunisian President Kais Saied of ‘racism and hate speech’ after he vowed to crack down on sub-Saharan African migrants. His comments have sparked fear among migrants and black Tunisians, says the writer.

By Claire Parker

Tunisian President Kais Saied took a page from the white-nationalist playbook this week, espousing xenophobic and conspiratorial views on migration as his government rounded up subSaharan African migrants, leaving black residents of Tunisia worried about their safety.

Saied, who has consolidated power since his election in 2019, has eroded the North African country’s democratic institutions. He is known for promoting conspiracy theories to justify tightening his grip on power.

The latest: his allegation of a yearslong plot to bring immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa to the country “to transform the demographic composition of Tunisia”. These “successive waves of irregular migration” are meant to change the image of Tunisia to that of “only an African country that has no affiliation to Arab and Islamic nations”, Saied told national security advisers on Tuesday, according to a readout of the meeting published on the presidency’s website.

He called for “an end to this phenomenon”, accusing “hordes of irregular migrants” of criminality and violence. His remarks, implying a shadowy structure of nefarious intent behind migration to the country, drew comparisons to the language of the “great replacement theory”, which holds that policies or elites welcoming immigration are working to “replace” white people in Western countries.

Popularised in recent years by French nationalists – who often inveigh against Muslim immigrants in France, including those of Tunisian origin – the conspiracy theory has been linked to white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville in August 2017; on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019; and at a supermarket in Buffalo, US, in May 2022, among others. Saied’s comments drew plaudits from Éric Zemmour, a leader of France’s far-right, who is known for his anti-Islam and anti-immigrant views.

“The North African countries themselves are beginning to sound the alarm in the face of a migration surge. Here, it is Tunisia that wants to take urgent measures to protect its people,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “What are we waiting for to fight against the Great Replacement?”

Coupled with a campaign of widespread arrests of migrants, the escalating rhetoric from the presidential palace in the majority-Arab country has sparked fear among black citizens and immigrants alike of street violence or arbitrary arrest in a country with a judiciary that is now largely under the control of the president.

Some 21,000 sub-Saharan African immigrants lived in Tunisia in 2021, according to the latest official survey, state news agency TAP reported. Many sub-Saharan African immigrants arrive in Tunisia legally to work or study.

Located at the northern-most tip of Africa, on the Mediterranean Sea, the country is a destination for people fleeing violence or poverty in subSaharan African countries – and a key transit hub for those who board rickety boats across the sea to seek asylum in Europe. There were roughly 9,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia as of December last year, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Coming from countries including Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, most transit through Libya, where physical and sexual abuse of migrants is rampant. Immigrants have long faced discrimination in Tunisia. Undocumented people, subject to arrest and exploitation, live in particularly precarious circumstances.

Tunisian authorities have detained hundreds of migrants this month and violated the rights of those stopped at the country’s borders, according to an open letter signed by more than two dozen rights groups last week, which accused the Tunisian government of violating its obligations under international law to protect refugees and human rights.

“At the same time, the Tunisian state turned a deaf ear to the rise of hateful and racist discourse on social networks and in certain media that specifically targets migrants of subSaharan African origin,” the letter said.

“This hateful and racist discourse is even perpetuated by certain political parties, which carry out propaganda stunts on the ground, facilitated by regional authorities.”

The Tunisia-Africa Business Council voiced its “deep concern” on Thursday. An association of Nigerian students and interns in Tunisia put out a statement urging members to always carry identification documents and avoid loitering in certain neighbourhoods in Tunisian cities, going out unnecessarily or late at night, and taking public transit.

In a social media post, a Master’s student from Ivory Coast studying at a Tunisian university, decried universities for failing to protect their students. Some Ivorians have asked their embassy in Tunisia to repatriate them. In a joint statement sent by WhatsApp on Thursday, more than a dozen Tunisian rights groups said Saied’s remarks expressed “hostility to the values of humanity and tolerance the Tunisian state has been bragging about”.

The Tunisian republic has historically identified as African and “is and will always remain the meeting place of civilisations, races and religions”, the statement added, calling on Saied to issue a formal apology. Rights activists called for a protest on Saturday afternoon in Tunis, the capital. Some Tunisian activists wrote posts on social media offering support to sub-Saharan immigrants, while a prominent professional soccer team released “Africa”-themed apparel. The uptick in vitriol threatens black citizens as well, rights groups say.

Black Tunisians have long made up a sizeable proportion of the population, widely estimated to constitute around 10% to 15% of the country’s population of some 12 million people. Many are descended from enslaved people brought to Tunisia before slavery was abolished there in 1846, and they continue to face discrimination in Tunisian society. Huda Mzioudet, a black Tunisian political analyst based in Toronto, shared on Twitter testimonies of a black Tunisian janitor who feared taking public transport to work, and a black Tunisian family police confronted at a funeral this week.

As a black Tunisian, Mzioudet has experienced racism first hand. Saied’s comments vocalised the “most primitive, racist tropes and prejudiced ideas about black Tunisians” among segments of the non-black population, she said, adding that she worries the government’s muzzling of dissent will prevent more black Tunisians and sub-Saharan African migrants from sharing accounts of harassment, violence or discrimination.

In the wake of Saied’s remarks, Tunisian anti-racism organisation Mnemty put out a statement on Wednesday condemning “racist discourse that catalyses hatred and aggression against black people.” It called on the presidency to take a “more objective and respectful” approach as hostility toward black residents escalates.

In 2018, before Saied was elected, Tunisia became the first Arab country to pass a law criminalising racism. Saied himself has previously voiced pride in Tunisia’s African identity.

Now, facing growing opposition and an intractable economic crisis, Saied appears to be using immigrants as a politically convenient scapegoat, analysts said. His focus on undocumented migrants comes amid a crackdown on dissidents in recent weeks that has drawn concern from the US State Department.

The article was first published in The Washington Post