Late last month, Tunisia’s authoritarian President Kais Saied borrowed another page from the global neo-fascist playbook and engaged in anti-black racism to expose his reign of terror.
At a February meeting of the National Security Council, he described undocumented black African immigrants as “mobs” bringing “violence and crime” to Tunisia. He then embraced the white supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory and alleged that immigration from sub-Saharan African countries aimed to change Tunisia’s demographic composition.
Said Said, “The unstated goal of the continuous waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country, which has no ties to Arab and Islamic countries.”
The president’s blatantly racist comments sparked a wave of violence and abuse against thousands of black Africans living, studying and working in Tunisia, as well as against black Tunisian citizens, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s population.
Many of the estimated 21,000 sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia lost their jobs and housing overnight. Hundreds have been arbitrarily arrested and put in dilapidated detention centres. Black people, including those with Tunisian citizenship, said they faced racial abuse in the streets. Fearing for their lives, dozens of migrants from sub-Saharan African countries began camping outside the International Organization for Migration headquarters in Tunis, while others tried to protect themselves by taking refuge in their home countries’ embassies. Many African countries, concerned about the well-being of their citizens living in the country, began repatriation plans.
On social media, racist accounts moved to amplify Syed’s divisive message by using xenophobic rhetoric and encouraging mob violence against “criminal” black Africans.
Meanwhile, several Tunisian media outlets tried to downplay the danger posed by Said’s conspiratorial comments with whataboutery. On local radio and newspapers, a large number of reporters and commentators tried to defend the president’s anti-black and anti-immigration campaign, pointing to the stricter immigration policies of some Western and African states. He also claimed that the xenophobic crackdown on so-called “illegal immigrants” is a legitimate and necessary measure to preserve and protect the country’s socio-cultural character.
Only when the African Union and the World Bank suspended their partnership with Tunisia over the president’s remarks, and international rights organizations drew strong condemnation, did the president and his supporters begin to back down.
During a meeting with Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoko Embalo on 8 March, Said claimed that his remarks about migrants had been “maliciously misinterpreted” by his enemies. Categorically denying the allegations of racism, he said that he had black friends in law school and that some members of his family had married sub-Saharan Africans.
And the president was not alone in attempting to whitewash his racist comments — and with them Tunisia’s anti-black racism problem — with baseless conspiracy theories, unspecified “enemies” and far-fetched political plots.
In the face of a massive international backlash, some in the Tunisian media who have been tacitly supporting the president’s racist rhetoric suggested that growing anti-black sentiment in the country is not due to racism, but a very real demographic replacement. Fear. Others claim by attacking migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Sayid is merely trying to win favor with European allies who are themselves promoting violent anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.
Of course, the idea that a significant number of Tunisians fear that migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who make up less than one percent of Tunisia’s population of 12 million, will “change the demographic makeup” of the country is absurd. The same goes for the notion that Syed’s regime is demonizing a small ethnic minority as a political tactic to win over European allies such as Italy and France.
Syed said what he said because he knew that his attacks on black immigrants would resonate with the authoritarian, fascist and racist tendencies of his supporters. Because he realized that the vicious targeting of a vulnerable minority would intimidate his opponents and provide a new venue to exercise his power and demonstrate his authority. He said what he said because he felt he could profit politically by inciting violence and hatred against migrants.
There is nothing new in Syed’s war against sub-Saharan migrants. Since gaining absolute power in a 2021 coup, the president has been waging a war against various groups, from the judiciary to unions and politicians. The violent terminology he used to attack his other perceived “enemies” – “criminals”, “traitors”, “terrorists” – is almost identical to what he now uses to denigrate black immigrants. Is. And the same tactics it used in the past to intimidate and silence its critics – arbitrary arrests, state violence and legislation – are now being used against sub-Saharan Africans.
But why did the president’s attack on black immigrants so quickly turn into widespread mob violence against sub-Saharan Africans? Why did so many people in different sections of Tunisian society, including some who are often critical of the president and his dictatorial regime, feel the need to defend their arguments and perceived concerns about the so-called “illegal”?
The answer is clear: The president’s racist comments found widespread support because anti-black racism is widespread in Tunisia and pervades all social, cultural and political levels.
Tunisia has a complicated relationship with race and racism.
On the one hand, Tunisians pride themselves on being the first Muslim country to officially abolish slavery in 1846. The perceived historical support of Tunisians for the emancipation of the enslaved black population is still deeply entrenched in the national imagination. Furthermore, people who are religious or live by core Islamic values see racism as a religious and moral duty. In 2019, the Tunisian parliament passed the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Act, which defines and criminalises racial discrimination. This law was observed for the first time in the Arab world.
On the other hand, many Tunisians still consider themselves “white” and culturally and socially superior to black Africans. They continue to buy into the harmful and divisive colonial idea that Africa is a continent with two distinct halves – “civilized white Africa” to the north and “primitive black Africa” south of the Sahara. This sense of racial, cultural and civilizational superiority guides the language used in the Tunisian media and even in academia. Tunisian historians and academics often attempt to whitewash the impact of the Arab slave trade on Africa. Since independence, little effort has been made to dismantle the toxic and violent discourse that mediates the way Tunisians see and engage with sub-Saharan Africans. Racist words and expressions are still used to describe black Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans across the country, with football commentators still referring to “the jungles of Africa” when talking about sub-Saharan countries. , and local investors still consider sub-Saharan markets to be ripe. For conquest, exploitation and extraction.
The coexistence of these opposing legacies in the national consciousness explains the speed with which the diaspora crackdown occurred after the President’s racist speech as well as the rationale and motivation behind the “No to Racism” marches following the events.
President Saied isn’t just introducing anti-black racism in Tunisia – he’s taking advantage of an existing social malaise to push his own agenda. He has succeeded in mobilizing anger and economic despair to fragment the country and make black African immigrants public enemies. By targeting the backs of black Africans in the country, they have also widened existing rifts between Tunisians and their sub-Saharan neighbors.
Tunisia has a long way to go in confronting and dealing with its anti-Black racism problem. It needs to examine its own image as an anti-racist nation and take urgent measures to eliminate prejudices that continue to influence public opinion and give way to racial violence. However, the country cannot embark on this difficult but necessary journey under the guidance of a president who is willing to incite racial violence for political leverage. The only way for Tunisia to repair its relations with its sub-Saharan neighbors, live up to its claim of being an anti-racist trailblazer in the Arab world, and start treating everyone within its borders with basic human decency To do is to end the Syed rule. ,
For Tunisia to heal, grow and prosper as an African nation, Saied and his regime need to go – and fast.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.