Tunisia’s President Gives Life to a Zionism Conspiracy Theory

How Kais Saied has become the mouthpiece for a tiny party’s absurd allegations about sub-Saharan migrants

Tunisia’s President Gives Life to a Zionism Conspiracy Theory
After Tunisia’s President Kais Saied blamed Black African migrants for the country’s economic woes, thousands of protesters gathered in downtown Tunis to protest in February 2023. (Erin Clare Brown)

Until late February, Sofien Ben Sghaier was virtually unknown in Tunisia’s political landscape. The quality control technician at a pharmaceutical company had never run for office, and the tiny Tunisian Nationalist Party (TNP) that he heads had never held a seat at any level of government. But Ben Sghaier was catapulted into the national spotlight on the night of Feb. 21, when President Kais Saied grabbed hold of the obscure politician’s racialized theories about Black migrants in Tunisia and elevated them to central planks of state policy.

In an incendiary speech that has drawn condemnation from across the globe, Saied claimed that in the years following the 2011 revolution, Tunisia’s pro-democratic political parties orchestrated a “criminal arrangement” to change the country’s “demographic composition” by importing “hordes” of Black African migrants. This conspiracy, Saied alleged, threatened to make Tunisia “an African country with no link to the Arab and Islamic nations.”

Many heard echoes of the “great replacement theory” in Saied’s speech, but it wasn’t Renaud Camus, that theory’s France-based author, who informed his racist rant. For months, the president and his closest advisers had been ingesting the bizarre musings circulated by Ben Sghaier and the TNP on Facebook, with one particularly pernicious theory gripping his attention: that Black migrants are pawns in a Zionist settler movement designed to strip Tunisia of its land and identity.

The shockwaves from Saied’s speech have destabilized Tunisia, spurring pogroms of physical and sexual violence committed against Black economic migrants, card-carrying UNHCR-registered refugees and even Black Tunisians. Many were evicted from their homes or lost jobs.

New Lines went to speak with Ben Sghaier to understand the root of this perverse vision of Black Zionism in North Africa.

The quality control technician-cum-politician minced neither time nor words as he laid out his party’s perverse notion that a Black Zionism movement threatens North Africans.

“Europe’s dangerous plan is to populate and overtake Tunisia with [Black] Africans,” Ben Sghaier told me.

He went on to claim that Europeans want to put Black Africans in Tunisia because they do not want them on their own soil. Europe sees the Arab world as colonizable and easily exploitable — a “sacrificial lamb,” he said — and so Europeans would rather create a Black African “settler colony” in Tunisia than host these migrants themselves.

Ben Sghaier claims that this is not a novel idea but one the Arab world has seen before: “Europeans did the same thing with Palestine,” he said. “They changed the direction of Jews from Europe to Palestine.” He sees the creation of the state of Israel as a cautionary tale that Tunisians should heed. “We are in mortal danger” as a nation, he claimed. “They want to make us the new Palestine.”

The TNP sees its role as that of a night watchman, sounding the alarm against such an invasion.

“Just like they realized the Zionist takeover of Palestine — we are raising awareness so all Tunisians will realize we are existentially threatened,” Ben Sghaier said. “Before it is too late. Before we lose our homeland.”

In Ben Sghaier’s telling, Black and Jewish people are pawns in a European plot, assisted by American funding, to turn formerly sovereign Arab nations into not just dumping grounds for unwanted migrants but proxy settler colonies. The specific words that Ben Sghaier uses in Arabic to describe these dynamics — words like “tawteen” (literally meaning “to domicile” but in this context meaning “to colonize with settlers”) — are words Tunisians typically hear when media figures and politicians criticize Zionist settlement of Israel.

For average Tunisians, who have long held a sense of deep solidarity with Palestine, “tawteen” carries with it feelings of profound injustice, invasion and humiliation. When Ben Sghaier or other media figures use this same word to demonize Black migrants and refugees, it gives the TNP’s conspiracy theory a potentially explosive power, because it taps into a vein of nationalistic indignity that resonates with Tunisians.

Ben Sghaier insists that foreign funding, particularly from Europe and the United States, is the financial grist powering the mill of Black African Zionist-style settler colonialism in Tunisia. “The European settlement project” of Tunisia is not a new phenomenon, Ben Sghaier said. In fact, it “has been threatening the Tunisian nation for hundreds of years.” But it worsened after 2011, Ben Sghaier asserted, when European and American money flooded into Tunisia. This funding, he argued, propped up a range of Tunisian actors — from municipal councils to political parties to civil society organizations. These local entities then worked as paid mercenaries to advance Europe’s settler colonial plot, he absurdly claimed, bringing in more and more Black Africans to take over Tunisia.

The solution to this relentless foreign interference that existentially threatens the Tunisian nation, Ben Sghaier said, is to rid the country of all foreign funding. “Tunisia should not take anything from the outside. It should rely on its own strengths,” he said. If Tunisia does this, Ben Sghaier predicted, its greatness could, at long last, be unshackled. Untroubled by Tunisia’s dire finances and desperate need for foreign bailouts, Ben Sghaier waxed lyrical about the “glory and greatness” that Tunisia could achieve if only it purged itself of all foreign funding, especially that arriving in dollars and euros. “If Tunisia does that, it can be an economic power, a cultural power, a scientific power,” Ben Sghaier pronounced. “It can be one of the nations that charts the very course of humanity’s history.”

Ben Sghaier delivers his theories in a relaxed and rational tone, and with the insistence that he and the TNP are not racist. “The problem isn’t sub-Saharan people,” he said. Instead, “the problem is Europeans’ support for them.”

“If there were no European project to settler-colonize Tunisia and give money to NGOs that enable this takeover,” he claimed, “Tunisians would have no problem with Black people.”

Ben Sghaier’s arguments are, of course, wholly unsupported by facts. According to Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics, the number of sub-Saharan Africans residing in Tunisia, with or without legal documentation, is just 21,466 — hardly a “horde” in a country of over 12 million, as Saied claimed, or an “invasion of settlers,” as Ben Sghaier said. But Ben Sghaier’s hyperbolic myth-spinning has woven a dangerous narrative, rife with proto-fascistic claims of demographic great replacement and assertions that a race-based notion of Tunisian nationhood is being threatened. And that narrative has landed in the ears — and mouth — of the most powerful man in Tunisia.

A smoking gun proving that Saied lifted his Feb. 21 speech from the TNP has not emerged, but links between the president’s innermost circle and Ben Sghaier’s group have. In November 2022, the TNP sent an alarming report to the president, titled, “The Settlement and Eradication of Tunisia From Existence.” Over the following two months, Ben Sghaier and a bus driver named Houcem Toubane, the two top figures in the TNP, held meetings with governors and municipal officials known to be close to Saied. These included the governor of Ariana, a prominent Saied appointee who the TNP says requested a meeting to learn more about its campaign.

But it is Saied’s words themselves that provide the strongest evidence that he dredged up the theory from the conspiratorial basement in which the TNP’s ideas had previously sloshed, mostly on Facebook, in near-obscurity. The language in Saied’s Feb. 21 speech “is almost verbatim copy and pasted from the TNP’s language,” said Zyna Mejri, a Tunisian researcher with the fact-checking organization Falso Tunisie, who recently authored the most comprehensive report published to date on the TNP’s history and links to Saied. “It is clear he copied their phrasing and their ideas.”

Saied has a long history of conspiratorial thinking, and many of the ideas he espouses overlap with Ben Sghaier’s. Both men are openly suspicious of foreign funding and dismiss Tunisia’s post-2011 gains and political pluralism itself as products of a shadowy, outside conspiracy. They also both share utopian delusions of grandeur regarding what Tunisia could achieve if liberated from European and American funding and expectations.

In 2019, during the last democratic election cycle before Saied’s presidential victory or subsequent self-coup, he gave an interview with the newspaper Acharaa al-Magharebi that foreshadowed his autocratic aims. Throughout the interview, Saied expressed disgust with Tunisia’s post-2011 political system, saying it required “purging.” Claiming that Tunisians had given up on political parties, Saied vowed to create a new political system in which parties themselves would be marginalized. He went on to disparage foreign funding, especially for Tunisian civil society, and to dismiss Tunisia’s post-2011 flowering of democratic associations and political life as the rotten fruits of malevolent interventionism.

Throughout the interview, Saied cast Tunisia’s flawed and fragile democratic transition as an instrument for foreign plots and ill-intentioned Western interventionism. “Some want to call it a democratic transition,” Saied said, but “I noticed conspiracies being hatched against Tunisia.” Terrorist organizations funded by Western foreign agents “seek to strike the state from within,” he implied; meanwhile, foreign funding was to blame for the spread of homosexuality in Tunisia. He claimed that a student at his university “was lured with foreign money and began dressing like a girl.” Saied said he wanted to cut all foreign funding for Tunisian civil society. “I have a project to stop support for such associations because they are a vehicle for intervening in our affairs.”

The quixotic grandiosity of Saied’s vision for a Tunisian state, blissfully liberated of foreign funding, as a model for all nations is echoed by some of his closest friends and thought-mates. In August 2021, Ridha Chiheb al-Mekki, who has gone by the political moniker “Lenin” since his days as a university activist, described Saied’s political project to me as a “new vision for democracy — a better democracy than the West has ever known that will be a model for all the countries in the whole world.”

The multiparty democracy of the West had utterly failed, Lenin claimed. “You’ve got Occupy Wall Street, the Gilets Jaunes, the Five Star Movement,” he said. “The West doesn’t want its democracy.” But Saied’s Gadhafi-esque vision of popular committees presided over by a strong, centralized presidency without the meddling interference of mediating institutions like media, civil society and political parties would, Lenin suggested, solve all this. “Tunisia will lead the whole world,” he said. “Saied will teach them.”

The TNP’s conspiratorial resentments, especially regarding foreign funding, parallel those espoused by Saied and his ilk. But its virulent, race-based nationalism had been absent in the president’s discourse before his Feb. 21 speech. Saied’s embrace of TNP nationalism has sounded the bugle on an unfolding battle that pits new, race-based ways of talking about nationalism espoused by Ben Sghaier against Tunisia’s more traditional understanding of nationalism: a kind of anti-colonial patriotism that its first president, Habib Bourguiba, embodied. During our interview, Ben Sghaier actively contrasted the TNP’s aggressive “qawmiyya” (race-based nationalism) with Bourguiba’s “wataniyya” (patriotic, anti-colonial, multicultural nationalism). The TNP’s brand of nationalism, he said, is superior for Tunisia and differs from Bourguiba’s “by its very roots.” Ben Sghaier stressed that, unlike Bourguiba, who made alliances with France and the U.S. despite his moderately anti-colonial stance, the TNP views these Western powers, especially France, as Tunisia’s “number one enemy.”

Tunisia’s freshly re-autocratized media landscape has embraced the paranoia about Black African immigrants with a verve that is alarming but hardly surprising. In elevating the TNP’s harissa-spiced version of the ironically Western white supremacist great replacement theory from Facebook’s dark fringes to the centerpiece of state policy, Saied signaled to Tunisia’s media that the TNP and its leaders are acceptable voices to platform.

The president’s grip on Tunisia’s media, which tightens week by week, amplifies the distribution of his approved ideologies, regardless of how unknown, seemingly unpopular or toxically violent they might be. Since his coup, Saied has steadily increased the pressure on Tunisia’s formerly unfettered media to self-censor, disclose sources at risk of criminalization and deplatform his political critics. Since Feb. 11, when Saied began the hard repression phase of his dictatorial consolidation with a series of political witch hunts jailing perceived critics, he has dragged away both Mahdi Jlassi, the head of Tunisia’s journalist union, and Noureddine Boutar, the head of Tunisia’s most important independent media outlet, Mosaique FM.

This dictatorial media dynamic increases the likelihood that hateful ideas disperse widely and rapidly as soon as Saied endorses them. This is precisely what has happened since Saied’s Feb. 21 speech, which injected the TNP’s take on the great replacement theory directly into Tunisia’s media mainstream. Hashtags in Arabic that the TNP started in June 2022, like #QawmiyyaTunsiyya (#TunisianNationalism), had barely gained traction prior to Saied’s speech, but went viral as vehicles for racist content in the days thereafter. Multiple media and television outlets have invited Ben Sghaier on as a guest in the weeks since Feb. 21.

Ben Sghaier and other TNP members go mostly unchecked by the outlets that host them. Their inaccurate statistics designed to spread racialized fear, hatred and alarm — they claim that 700,000 sub-Saharan Africans are in Tunisia, more than tenfold greater than even the highest estimates — have been repeated by presenters and prominent guests, including former spokesperson for the Minister of the Interior Khalifa Chibani, on the state-owned Wataniya TV station and other public and private outlets.

Since Feb. 21, a variety of racist content has circulated widely on TikTok and Facebook, including photos that allege Black Africans are killing and eating Tunisia’s cats, and videos from Chad and Morocco purporting to show masses of Black people running across Tunisia’s borders as invaders. These platforms became ideological gathering points for Saied supporters during Tunisia’s recent and ongoing anti-Black pogroms. Though activists have reported content that violates Facebook’s terms of service and content moderators have removed some of the most violent posts and pages, reams of TNP-inspired and Saied-amplified great replacement content continue to spread.

The TNP remains tiny, at least in terms of its official membership roster. Falso Tunisie’s report, based on interviews with its leaders, confirmed that the party, which was officially founded in 2018, has five members, a figure Ben Sghaier corrected down to four during our interview. Ben Sghaier isn’t interested in growing the party or running candidates in elections. Instead, he said that legalizing the TNP as a political party made propagandizing its version of the great replacement theory — what he euphemistically termed “raising awareness” — easier. He elaborated, “I needed a legal framework to warn people about the dangers Tunisia’s nation is in.”

The TNP’s influence on Saied’s new rubber-stamp parliament also remains unclear. Ben Sghaier recently claimed that 50 of the chamber’s 161 members are TNP supporters. In a subsequent interview, Brahim Bouderbala, the speaker of this new Potemkin parliament, dismissed that claim as comically exaggerated. “I’d personally never heard that name,” he said, referring to Ben Sghaier, “until we were discussing African illegals on Diwan FM the other day. He calls himself a party, but the TNP is a party with just one man.”

Yet Bouderbala’s own invocation of “African illegals” belies the fact that the TNP’s discourse has already permeated pro-Saied media and the language of political elites. Despite Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar’s recent attempts to make amends with African dignitaries and partially walk back the most incendiary elements of Saied’s claims, the proto-fascist cat is out of the bag. Or, as one proverb says, “It’s hard to put spilled porridge back into the pot.”

That is especially true when the president who spilled this porridge seems not only uncommitted to its cleanup but also unwilling to recognize he spilled anything in the first place. Saied may or may not genuinely commit to the TNP’s flavor of race-based nationalism or its assertion that Europeans are using Black Africans to engineer a great replacement just as they allegedly used Jews to settler-colonize Palestine. What is clear, however, is that Saied accepts and publicly repeats multiple pillars of the TNP’s ideology.

The extent to which Saied’s miasma of populist, proto-fascist authoritarianism and the bit players whose ideas he dredges up and amplifies to consolidate it will change Tunisians’ understanding of nationalism, and of their own collective identity, remains uncertain. But the boundaries of who counts as fully human, what counts as acceptable violence, and which foreign and domestic actors constitute Tunisia’s allies and enemies, are shifting in troubling directions.

The cartography of collective identity is being remapped in Tunisia, its course charted by a conspiracy-mongering president wearing multiple tinfoil caps. Whether Saied is cynically dredging the swamp, selectively lifting ideas from conspiratorial Facebook outlets like the TNP to pragmatically distract Tunisia’s populace or genuinely believes these ideas is unclear.

The fact that this remains an open question, however, spells gloom for Tunisia’s governance moving forward. For Mejri, the researcher who compiled the exhaustive report on the TNP, Saied is not just a conduit for the toxic conspiracies lashing against Tunisia’s political shores: “He’s the source.” He is not just drinking from, but diving deep into, the swamp of vicious conspiracy — the habitat where he appears most comfortable — dragging Tunisia with every passing day farther into its dark eddies.

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