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After a fortnight of political arrests and detentions, Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, has now unleashed a racist campaign targeting Black migrants in his country, with conspiracies that echo the “great replacement theory” and police raids in popular quarters across the country where many migrant workers live.
In an address to his National Security Council on February 21, Saied claimed that “there is a criminal arrangement that has been prepared since the beginning of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia … There are parties that received huge sums of money after 2011 in order to settle irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia.” He called on the security forces to “quickly put an end to this phenomenon,” repeating racist tropes about the inherent criminality of Black people.
Saied’s scapegoating statement, for which he offered no evidence, has opened a floodgate of racialized terror and violence in Tunisia that previously bubbled just beneath the surface. In the hours following the address, Saied’s supporters, including newly elected members of his Potemkin Parliament, repeated his claims, and reports filled social media and private WhatsApp groups of the targeting of Black people — whether from sub-Saharan countries or Black Tunisians — with verbal and physical abuse.
Grace, an Ivorian woman in her mid-30s who works in the home of a European diplomat, told New Lines she returned home from work Wednesday night to find her landlord had cut the gas, water and electricity and demanded she and her three housemates leave the premises immediately. Richard, a construction worker in the coastal city of Hammamet, said his employer told his entire crew not to come back to work for fear he would face legal consequences for employing migrant workers. Other West African domestic workers who did not wish to be named reported having rocks thrown at them while they were out grocery shopping or with their young charges at parks or playgrounds.
“I’ve been working here for almost a decade,” said Josephine, an Ivorian nanny. “For the first time I feel afraid to go to work, to take the bus, to go to the market.”
By Saturday, nearly a dozen people were camped outside the Ivorian embassy, having been jettisoned from their homes in the preceding days. On Sunday, neighborhoods largely populated by Black students and workers lay quiet, as panicked WhatsApp messages spread rumors of vigilante violence planned for the day.
Tunisia has a visa-free travel agreement with Ivory Coast, the country from which the majority of its estimated 70,000 sub-Saharan immigrants come. As a nation with a Francophone university system, Tunisia has become a hub for students from West Africa. Its proximity to Europe has also become a draw for those hoping to cross the Mediterranean to find more opportunity in Italy or France.
Nearly all of Tunisia’s migrants arrive legally, but after three months their status becomes “irregular” and a monthly penalty of about $27 is accrued. Few paths exist for gaining legal authorization to work in Tunisia, as the domestic labor laws forbid foreigners to hold a position that a Tunisian citizen could reasonably fulfill. As a result, most work in precarious circumstances in roles without oversight, protections or rights. Wage theft is common, as is physical violence. For many migrants who have overstayed months or years — including through the Covid-19 pandemic, when borders were closed — with spotty, poorly paid work, their exit fee becomes prohibitively high and they are left in limbo, earning too little to pay their ever-increasing fees, but unable to leave.
As part of Saied’s campaign, Tunisian police have arrested more than 500 immigrants in raids in recent days. Alice, a Senegalese domestic worker, said she had just picked up her young child from the home of an acquaintance that serves as an informal daycare for immigrant worker families when the police raided the building and took parents and their children into custody. Others have been pulled off of buses, out of shops and off of construction sites. Two evangelical pastors, Pacome Otete and Kalou Daniel, were arrested in sweeps on Thursday.
That night, Saied doubled down on his conspiracy theories, with a funhouse mirror interpretation of “le grand remplacement” (“the great replacement”), a racist theory originally coined by the French far-right novelist Renaud Camus that claims white European populations are being replaced by Islamic foreigners. “It is the unannounced goal” of the nefarious actors who supposedly received large sums to resettle immigrants in Tunisia, Saied said, “to make Tunisia an African country and not belonging to the Arab and Islamic nations.”
The speed of Tunisia’s descent into overt racism has surprised many onlookers, but Huda Mzioudet, a Black Tunisian rights activist and scholar, said its racism has been long-standing. Despite abolishing slavery in the 1840s, mistreatment of Black Tunisians and those from elsewhere on the continent has persisted in the decades since. “Part of the problem is Tunisians’ denial, rejection and minimizing of the issue of racism,” Mzioudet said. She explained that Tunisians point to other countries, like the United States, where racism is more overt or violent, while ignoring their own history of the slave trade and repression of Black Tunisians. “They say, ‘We don’t kill you like they do in the U.S. so we can’t be racist.’ That denial is more violent than the racism itself. It kills; it erases.”
Mzioudet founded the Black rights activist group Adam in the years following the 2011 revolution. Alongside other Black Tunisians — many of them women — she worked to improve the visibility of her community and dignity and rights for Black immigrants in the country. Much of that work culminated in a landmark 2018 law that criminalized racial discrimination, with a potential sentence of up to three years in prison. It was the first of its kind in the Arab world, and was widely lauded by human rights activists.
Yet, after her initial elation at the bill’s passing, Mzioudet felt reservations creeping in. “The law showed a maturity in Tunisian civil society, but I knew Tunisians couldn’t be changed just by changing the laws,” she said. “They have to change from within themselves.”
On Saturday, over 1,000 people marched through downtown Tunis to protest what they called Saied’s fascist overtures. Shouts of “Down with fascism, Tunisia is an African land!” and “Solidarity with our brothers without papers!” rang out down Avenue Habib Bourguiba. One protester held a sign reminding the crowd that, 61 years earlier, Nelson Mandela came to Tunis on his clandestine mission to gain support for armed resistance against apartheid (then-president Habib Bourguiba gave Mandela a small financial contribution for the effort).
Another held aloft a mirror. “It’s a metaphor,” he said. “We need to take a look at where we as a country have ended up, this new political order, and see it without makeup, as it really is.”
Saied’s crackdown on the country’s immigrants may complicate the economic problems he is attempting to pin on them rather than solve them. In late January, Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani visited Tunisia, where he said that “the great problem of immigration is a scourge for Tunisia and Italy. We said we had to solve the problem at its roots.” An influx of migrants to Europe’s shores from Tunisia could jeopardize EU funding and the bloc’s support of the country as it tries to secure a nearly $4 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
As the situation grows more tense and violent, many immigrants say they’re looking for a way out. “It’s too expensive to go home, and too dangerous to stay here,” said Nicolas, an Ivorian man in his 20s who works as a gardener in Sfax. He said he was trying to borrow money to catch a boat to Lampedusa.
“My time in Tunisia’s run its course, I’ll try my luck at sea.”
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