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Tunisia: As racist attacks unfold, the President points to foreign funding

March 15, 2023 at 4:03 pm

Dozens of African immigrants, who have settled in the al-Buhaire region in the north of the capital Tunis of Tunisia continue their lives on the streets with limited opportunities on March 05, 2023 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

At the beginning of March a picture of anti-racist, Tunisian activist Saadia Mosbah was posted on social media. The comments below accuse her of receiving money from the Germany embassy to implement the “demographic change policy,” and of helping sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia. Later that day Saadia was arrested and questioned about her funding.

The incident was concerning for civil society groups in Tunisia. Not only were the authors of the post inspired by President Kais Saied’s racist comments on 21 February, in which he accused black Africans of being part of a plot to inspire demographic change in Tunisia, but his security forces were apparently using social media to track and arrest activists.

“The president is now denouncing and pointing at the international organisations working in Tunisia and funding that international organisations are receiving,” one civil society group, which asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told MEMO.

“That’s also part of the conspiracy theory that an international organisation is conspiring to help migrants stay in Tunisia. But Tunisia itself is receiving money from other countries.”

Saied’s original, shocking statement was inspired by Tunisia’s Nationalist Party, which promotes the far-right “great replacement” theory. Two months ago this nationalist party started a petition to expel migrants from the country. It collected almost one million signatures.

“They were posting almost every day and trying to influence people but then they influenced not only the people, but the government. So that’s quite shocking.”

“Kais Saeid was kind of embracing the populist discourse,” says the civil society group. “The state was responding positively to what the Nationalist Party was saying about changing the demography and demographics of Tunisia.”

A recent Facebook post by Tunisia’s Nationalist Party says it is preparing for a new campaign against “influence and foreign settlement” in Tunisia, aimed at “dissolving foreign funded associations in Tunisia and prohibiting foreign funding to associations, unions and media.”

Racist attacks

After Saied’s comments circulated in February, a wave of violence followed. Armed mobs targeted the homes of black people; some were kicked out of their houses and hundreds lost their jobs overnight.

“We went from some people being against the presence of migrants to the government taking it as a position and legitimising violence, discrimination and racial discrimination,” says the civil society organisation.

READ: Tunisia’s wave of racist attacks: ‘I’m afraid. I can just disappear’

Hassan Abdul, a refugee from Darfur living in Tunisia who asked that his name be changed, says that when he first arrived, he felt safe, but everything changed after the speech.

“It has become frightening for every black person,” he says. “I have been attacked many times and since that moment I decided not to go out. Until now I have not been anywhere. This is a life where you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow.”

At first, the story hit global news and stories detailing the violence against black Africans in Tunisia circulated. As the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring, observers wanted to know what had gone wrong.

In 2018, Tunisia became the first country in the MENA region to implement a law penalising racial discrimination but now it was not adhering to its own legislation.

“I would say because we were expecting a lot from Tunisia and Tunisia was ‘the exception’ during the Arab Spring and it was a leader in MENA countries and heading towards democracy and we kind of experienced democracy. But now we’re going back to what we had before 2011 and before the Arab Spring and before the revolution.”

“We were not expecting to go back to an authoritarian regime after this whole path towards democracy and a new constitution. There is a gap between expectations and what is happening now.”

Two weeks after Saied’s statement was issued and the violence is making the news and social media less and less. The president has tried to soften his statement and said he will take action against perpetrators.

But it is still happening – people are still being expelled from their homes and migrants are still on the streets without clothes or food and the state has not introduced measures to address that, or even to facilitate their return for those that want it.

During the 5 March protests, when Tunisians took to the streets to say no to racism, sub-Saharan migrants in the country did not join them for fear they would be arrested or attacked. Others have already left, or are making plans to leave.

“I cannot stay here anymore because I don’t feel safe,” says Hassan. “If necessary, I will go via the Mediterranean Sea. I am a refugee, and many refugees are fleeing after the speech. Being a refugee, you always feel afraid because you have not felt safe since you were born.”

READ: African Union postpones conference in Tunisia amid crackdown on migrants

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.