kais saied is doubling down on xenophobia in tunisia
The president has decided to scapegoat Black migrants and condone violence against them as the country’s financial crisis worsens.
In the past weeks, Tunisian President Kais Saied has intensified his clampdown on political opponents and undocumented Black migrants, turning Tunisia into a country that is no longer recognizable from the one that was the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011.
On Feb. 21, he told his national security council that hordes of illegal immigrants are still arriving, bringing violence, crime, and unacceptable practices with them. Those arrested, often without a charge, were simply called “terrorists” and “traitors.”
The conspiratorial thinking that has long defined the novice politician, who came to power in a landslide election victory in 2019, appears to have spread across much of Tunisia, with a campaign flooding Tunisia’s social media with attacks on migrants led by the hitherto little-known Parti Nationaliste Tunisien (PNT).
The latest international and domestic conspiracies to destabilize Tunisia are regularly reported in newspapers and television channels. As a result, supermarket shelves remain bare, and long-promised bailouts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) remain a distant dream.
More undocumented Black migrants from across Africa are competing for space outside the International Organization for Migration building in Tunis, as a makeshift village of tarpaulins and blankets has grown over the last few months.
It is common to hear stories of evictions, attacks with machetes, knives, and beatings, and burnings of property and withholdings of wages. Before the president’s speech in February, Tunisia was not aware of racism, but it had become a part of their daily lives.
This young Nigerian couple and their baby are forced to huddle together, desperately trying to shield themselves from the harsh winds of the nearby lake. After relocating a few times in recent months, they were left homeless with no help in sight. “It’s impossible,” said the woman who requested not to be named. “We’re struggling, trying to make it work. People and police constantly giving us a hard time on the streets and we don’t have employment or money. It’s horrible.”
When asked how she would describe Tunisia to friends in Nigeria, she barely pauses. “I’ll tell them what I experienced. Many Tunisians are very good, but many are very bad.”
Saied has faced worldwide criticism since his racist remarks towards Tunisia’s undocumented Black migrants on Feb. 21, when he alleged they were involved in a plot to alter the nation’s population dynamics. This same ungrounded conspiracy theory is prevalent within the European and American far-right circles, which has had tragic effects throughout the world. With Éric Zemmour praising Saied for his comments, it is uncertain how much of this was simply opportunism or if he truly believes such theories.
The number of Black migrants, just like the number of white migrants-who include Western aid workers, development officers, and a large number of Libyans living in the capital’s northern suburbs-is impossible to determine with any accuracy. In Tunisia, there are about 21,000 Black migrants; many of them lack the proper paperwork, due to Tunisia’s opaque bureaucratic systems, making establishing legal residency almost impossible.
Thousands of Tunisians migrate to Europe without paperwork every year, ironically similar to the plight of Black migrants here.
As a result, accommodations are often arranged informally through friends or pliant landlords, and income comes from casual employment, a plight ironically familiar to the thousands of Tunisians who migrate to Europe without documentation every year.
It is not uncommon for the working class reaches of La Soukra in Ariana, next to the capital, to frown at the dissonance between the treatment of Tunisians in Europe and the treatment meted out to undocumented Black migrants in Tunisia. As a result of the EU refusing to accept the Black migrants, Bassem Khazmi, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, told a translator that they were forced back home.
Khazmi quickly changes the topic when asked how the relatively small number of undocumented Black migrants compares to the thousands of Tunisians who leave for Europe every year without documentation.
The consequences of Saied’s remark have been immense – evidenced in the testimonies collected from those affected. For instance, InfoMigrants stated that four Black migrants were stabbed in Sfax and four students reported being targeted as they left their university residence in Tunis. The dispersion of these families has been widespread and has no doubt left many traumatised.
Nightly, gangs of predominantly young men are kicking down doors and dragging Black migrants into the streets, some of them watching their possessions burn in many of the country’s cities. There are countless stories of those who are confined to their houses, afraid of being reported to by their neighbors.
Few people would deny that there has been some underlying racial tension in Tunisia for a while given its supposedly progressive surface. The PNT, led by Sofien Ben Sghaïer and formally recognized as an official political party since 2018, have initiated a campaign asking Tunisians to inform authorities about undocumented migrants. This campaign has gained quite the publicity within the first 25 days of February, leading up to and immediately following the president’s intervention. According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights data gathered over that period, 1,540 Black migrants were arrested.
In response to the question if the president’s comments were meant to distract from his economic failures, Amnesty International’s Amna Guellali said, “I don’t know what his motivations are.” “I don’t know if he’s surprised at the level of vigilante violence and xenophobia his words have unleashed… but he’s given the green light to a lot of people’s hatred.”
As the unrest has continued, hundreds of Tunisian activists, who have largely been absent from the country’s street politics since Saied’s power grab in 2021, mobilized over the weekend to show their solidarity with the country’s Black migrants.
By doing so, many Tunisians found themselves in surprising ideological lockstep with their former opponents among the country’s political parties, who were angered by the arbitrary arrests of many former legislators when Saied froze parliament and dismissed the country’s prime minister. Their coming together at least presents a unified—if fragmented—opposition to the president, regardless of what their intentions are.
Whether that makes a difference is unclear. Saied’s clampdown of the opposition has drawn widespread international criticism, including from the United Nations and the African Union. He has responded by expressing surprise at the censure and reminding his critics overseas that Tunisia remains sovereign, risking isolation and penury at a time when the country needs its allies the most.
Saied’s plans for the country are a mystery. As Tunisia risks default on its international loans, Saied seems unconcerned. Instead of forming an agreement with the Tunisian General Labor Union, which could be necessary to implement potential social changes, he expelled European Trade Union Confederation chief Esther Lynch for speaking at a union rally.
There are also doubts about Saied’s willingness to engage in the international commitments and internal concessions required to secure the IMF’s $1.9 billion bailout as negotiations appear to have stalled.
As a result, he continues to attack his opponents as “traitors” and “terrorists,” accusing them of plotting his assassination and selling the country out to unknown foreigners. As the president’s accusations have grown more idiosyncratic with each appearance, one list purported to include Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French public intellectual who is suspected of conspiring against state security.
The intensity of Saied’s political cleansing is increasing without cease. Scores of his opponents have been arrested in a matter of days, with no charges made against them. From members of the National Salvation Front and Citizens Against the Coup (gathered from prominent former political parties) to proprietors of radio stations and judiciaries, legal professionals and businessmen, a newly empowered police force has apprehended them all.
Others are accused of plotting with the U.S. Embassy against Saied’s increasingly idiosyncratic rule. Others have been accused of conspiring in the subsidized food shortages.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement to Foreign Policy, expressing concern over the potential imprisonment of individuals in Tunisia due to interaction with embassy officials. It emphasized that an important function for all American embassies abroad is to meet people from varied backgrounds to aid the government’s understanding of different viewpoints in a particular country. Additionally, it noted that foreign diplomats posted in the United States often engage in such meetings as well.
Charges and accusations against many of the people now in custody strain credulity regardless of the details of any particular meeting.
Hamza Meddeb, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center expressed his disbelief. He asked how a few individuals in Tunis could possibly result in widespread food shortages and price increases. Despite the incredulousness of it all, many within Tunisia’s security services are still going along with it as a matter of convenience. All they have to do is shut down public space while increasing oppression across the country. It doesn’t matter if none of it makes sense; this is about power after all.
Many of those arrested are perceived to be members of the country’s elite and political classes, who many citizens blame for their current plight. The recent round of arrests is therefore in tandem with the campaign to scapegoat Black migrants.
“It’s basically an essay in populism,” Meddeb said. Racism has also been unleashed.
As the memory of former autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali still lingered, an old man in Tunis openly boasted to a camera that his ancestors had trafficked slaves.
There is no difference between undocumented and increasingly documented Black migrants in Tunisia. Standing outside the Ivory Coast embassy in central Tunis, a family of documented Black migrants is getting ready to leave. Asked whether the change in attitudes toward migrants was sudden, he replied, “It was like a switch being flipped.” It has been very bad since the president’s speech.
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