(CNN) — A viral video from late February showed a man decrying the incompatibility of Black African “values” with those of Tunisians. Asked by the interviewer if he had ever met any Africans, he retorted implying he knows them well “because my grandfather used to buy and sell them.”
The video has garnered more than 600,000 views on Twitter. It’s one of many circulating in Tunisia that has, in recent weeks, brought to the fore a racism problem in the country that has coincided with an influx of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who use Tunisia as a transit point to Europe.
Some of the social media posts, shared in Arabic, English and French, have portrayed the migrants as invaders, criminals and rapists who seek to displace Tunisians. Many refer to the debunked but widely shared claim that there are 2 million sub-Saharan Africans in the country of 12 million.
The sudden rise in public expressions of racism occurred in the weeks after Tunisian President Kais Saied delivered a widely criticized tirade about undocumented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia, like other North African countries, is predominantly Arabic speaking.
On February 21, he described illegal border crossings from sub-Saharan Africa into Tunisia as a “criminal enterprise hatched at the beginning of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia” and called on security forces to expel undocumented migrants.
That caused fear and insecurity to ripple through migrant communities in the country, who say they have faced racist attacks, evictions, firings and dehumanizing treatment by the authorities. Many have camped outside the embassies of their countries or UN agencies seeking safety or flights back home. Sub-Saharan Africans make up less than 1% of Tunisia’s population.
Critics of the president say he is complicit. His actions, they say, have unleashed xenophobia and exposed the dark underbelly of anti-Black racism in the country. The controversy also demonstrates the regression of democracy and human rights in the country that sparked the Arab Spring revolts over a decade ago.
Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar scoffed at allegations of racism during an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson on Monday, calling them a “bad joke” meant to serve people “with other agendas,” without elaborating.
“Of course, nothing (is) wrong,” he said, referring to Saied’s comments. “The Tunisian government … are in the right to say what they say. There’s no excuse to give, we didn’t insult no one … We have been put in a position to explain what is already clear,” he said.
Both documented and undocumented migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa have reported a surge in violence. Several African countries, including Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea and Gabon, have helped repatriate their citizens as a result of the crackdown.
Henda Chennaoui, a coordinator at Tunisia’s Anti-Fascist Front, told CNN that Saied’s comments and racist social media posts caused a historic “shift” in the country’s discourse that would be hard to reverse. They resulted in attacks on migrants in their homes and in the streets, she said. Her organization has lent support to some of the victims and campaigned against their mistreatment.
Great Replacement theory
For many observers, Saied’s theory about a plot to change the racial makeup of the country echoes the Great Replacement theory, a popular theme in White supremacist and right-wing discourse in Europe and North America that accuses elites of using immigration to replace the native population.
“Saied’s speech injected the Great Replacement theory and racial hatred into the bloodstream of Tunisia’s political mainstream, and we are witnessing its effects,” said Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi who specializes in Tunisia.
Tunisia has long been a transit point for undocumented migrants trying to cross into Europe. The UN’s International Organization for Migration praised Tunisia’s efforts on migration in a statement to CNN, but said it was “very concerned about the latest rise in hate speeches, anti-migrant narratives and the surge in violence against migrants in the country.”
Chennaoui, of the Anti-Fascist Front, said there is racism in Tunisia “as there is in any other country,” but noted that what stands out in the country is that racism is being adopted by the highest-ranking officials “which changes everything.” That has galvanized many Tunisians to take to the streets in protest and lend a helping hand to the victims, she said.
Marks of NYU Abu Dhabi has collected testimonies from several migrants facing racism in Tunisia and has documented their plight on Twitter. She told CNN that Black Tunisians have been facing racism in their own country.
Condemnation of President Saied has been swift, including a rare rebuke from the African Union whose chairperson called the comments “racial” and “shocking.” The AU postponed a scheduled conference in Tunis to protest the president’s language.
The US State Department said that it was concerned about the Tunisian president’s rhetoric and arbitrary arrests of migrants in recent weeks. “These remarks are not in keeping with Tunisia’s long history of generosity in hosting and protecting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters last week. “And we’re disturbed by reports of violence against these very migrants.”
Asked about reports that the World Bank is suspending talks with Tunisia following Saied’s comments, the Tunisian foreign minister said the lender had postponed the meeting “because it wanted to avoid … this discussion during this useless polemic, that’s all … the programs of the World Bank are still ongoing in Tunisia.”
Some have suggested that the Tunisian president may be scapegoating Black Africans in order to deflect attention away from the controversies he has courted at home.
Saied has pushed Tunisia closer to autocracy since dismissing parliament in mid-2021 and moving to rule by decree, just a decade after protesters overthrew an autocratic regime in favor of democracy. He has amassed near-total power and described parliament as “an institution of absurdity and a state within the state,” according to Reuters.
Marks said Saied’s targeting of African migrants was linked to his “political witch hunts,” referring to the government’s crackdown on dissidents.
“Both have happened simultaneously this past month and mark a dramatic escalation of his dictatorial consolidation,” she said. “He’s imprisoning and scapegoating political opponents across the board — and racially persecuting the most vulnerable — to distract from his utter failure to deliver competent economic governance to Tunisia.”
Additional reporting by Xiaofei Xu, Kareem El Damanhoury, Bethlehem Feleke, Abbas Al Lawati and Zeena Saifi.
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