HomeTop StoriesWhy the Tunisian president targeted migrants from sub-Saharan Africa

Why the Tunisian president targeted migrants from sub-Saharan Africa

Some migrants have decided to leave Tunisia after President Kais Saied’s comments

When problems arise, blame the migrants or ethnic minorities.

This is a tried and tested tactic used by populist politicians or authoritarian leaders to win elections or bolster waning popularity.

This kind of populism seems to be the most likely explanation for Tunisian President Kais Saied’s February outburst against migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in his country.

Mr Saied made the particular comment that these people were part of a conspiracy to change the demographic makeup of the North African country, which has a predominantly Arab-Muslim culture.

As history clearly shows, it is a dangerous tactic that often leads to violence. And that was exactly what happened in Tunisia.

After the comments, black African migrants felt the full force of the consequences. Some were afraid to leave their homes for fear of random violence or verbal abuse.

A student from southern Africa who has been studying in Tunisia for the past five years painted a poignant picture of the impact of Mr Saied’s comments on black Africans in Tunisia.

She told the BBC Africa Daily podcast that some had set their homes on fire while others were beaten up, and she no longer felt safe in the country.

This resulted in many black Africans going to their embassies to organize repatriation.

Ivorian Foreign Minister and Foreign Minister Kandia Camara (L) welcomes some of the hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans arriving from Tunisia at Abidjan Airport, Ivory Coast, on March 4

Ivory Coast Foreign Minister Kandia Camara (second from left) welcomed migrants who flew home on a repatriation flight earlier this month

The Tunisian government has defended the president, arguing that his speech was directed at those who had come to the country without permission and not at those legally residing in the country.

There are an estimated 20,000 sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia, which has a population of 12 million.

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But Tunisian law researcher Kenza ben Azouz told the BBC: “This is not a question of legality or illegality. What matters is that you are black in this country”.

She added that black Tunisians, who make up about 10-15% of the country’s population, face discrimination because of their skin color. This is an issue picked up by a BBC News Arabic poll last year.

The problem of sub-Saharan Africans traveling to North Africa hoping to cross the Mediterranean to Europe is not new. It has long been a bone of contention between North African states and Europe.

However, what is new this time is the language Mr Saied used to address the issue. It seemed designed to stir up fear and nationalistic zeal – to rally the masses around some cause at a time when Mr Saied’s misery continued to pile up.

Tunisia is in very bad economic shape. It never recovered from the years of political turmoil that followed the overthrow of President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali in 2011.

Tourism was hit hard by terror attacks and the downturn was exacerbated by the covid pandemic and then the war in Ukraine.

Tunisian President Kais Saied addresses the press as he arrives at Tunis-Carthage International Airport to bid farewell to the prospective Hajj pilgrims before their departure to Saudi Arabia to make the Hajj pilgrimage in Tunis on July 21, 2022, Tunisia.

President Kais Saied dissolved parliament in 2021 and rewrote the constitution

Politically, things are not going the way the president wants.

Since he fired the cabinet and dissolved parliament in the summer of 2021 and announced a roadmap he promised would put the country on the path to stability and prosperity, his plan has suffered one setback after another.

The committee he selected to draft a new constitution withdrew its support after he made drastic changes to the draft they submitted. He effectively collected all the levers of power in the hands of the presidency and emasculated the legislature and judiciary.

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Subsequently, the online public consultation on the draft attracted only a few hundred thousand people out of an electorate of nine million.

The poll itself was effectively boycotted by some 70% of eligible voters.

His plan fared no better in the next step: the parliamentary elections at the end of last year.

Turnout was a record low, 11%, prompting Mr Saied to say that the people did not want parliament.

With his frequent tirades against the media and the political class, accusing them of corruption and abuse of power, the president has effectively anointed himself as the savior of the nation – the only man untainted by politics and the pursuit of power.

Therefore, the idea that Tunisia faces an existential threat from sub-Saharan migrants seems like a useful diversion.

But the xenophobic discourse was not entirely made up by the president.

Take the small political party that Saied supports, the Tunisian Nationalist Party. It espouses xenophobic views – strikingly similar to those of far-right anti-immigrant parties in Europe – and campaigns for the expulsion of black migrants.

The party claims that sub-Saharan Africans are settlers who will eventually rob the Tunisians of their land, drawing a parallel with Israel and the Palestinians.

Ennahda supporters protest against Kais Saied.

Supporters of the Ennahda Party staged demonstrations last year calling for the president to resign

Playing the nationalist card has become a convenient tactic in North Africa and the Middle East to counter the pervasive influence of political Islam, which is essentially a transnational ideology and whose adherents remain the largest political group in Tunisia. representing opponents of Saied.

Nationalism can be benign or enter dangerous territory in times of crisis. Saied has repeatedly labeled his political opponents as “traitors”.

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This polarization is not unique to Tunisia.

Saied seems to have taken a leaf of the strategy of the Egyptian government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to undermine the grip of Islamist ideology on society and political discourse.

It has sought to revive a sense of unique national identity as an antidote to the transnational ideology of Islamism, where faith trumps land.

And like Tunisia, Egypt has seen an increase in anti-black rhetoric from ultra-nationalists, who see the presence of black African migrants in Egypt as a threat.

In response to events in Tunisia, an ultra-nationalist group in Egypt calling itself Nationalist Revival expressed support for Mr Saied.

The group claims Egypt has been overwhelmed by Sudanese and sub-Saharan immigrants, and calls on authorities to stop the influx and deport them.

The same people recently campaigned against a planned appearance in Egypt by American stand-up comedian Kevin Hart because of the artist’s support for Afrocentrism – including the belief that ancient Egypt was a black civilization.

Naturally, that enraged many Egyptians, the vast majority of whom, like many Tunisians, are trying to distinguish themselves from sub-Saharan Africa.

The performance was seen as part of a wider conspiracy to deprive the Egyptians of their own culture and land, while also appealing to the Palestinian plight, in a manner reminiscent of the Tunisian Nationalist Party.

The show was subsequently cancelled, but the organizers gave no reason why. That was considered a victory for the Egyptian nationalists.

In response to the international outcry, Mr Saied has made some conciliatory remarks in recent days, stressing that Tunisia was an African country and that he has relatives who married black Africans.

And the government has announced some measures to reassure the Black African community, such as setting up a hotline for complaints and canceling fines for those who overstayed their visas.

But it was all a bit too late.

The image damage of the country has been done.

Once the nationalist genie is out of the bottle, it can take on a life of its own. In extreme moments, foreigners or ethnic minorities may be the first victims.

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