“A new identity discourse at the top of the Tunisian State”

“Hards of illegal migrants” at the origin of “violence and unacceptable acts”, a threat to the “Arab and Islamic” identity of the country, “a criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape in Tunisia”. President Kais Saied aroused the indignation of part of public opinion and associations for the defense of migrantsTuesday, February 21, by propagating a xenophobic discourse that the European far right would not have denied.

President Saïed’s remarks, made during a meeting of the National Security Council, were quickly welcomed in France by Éric Zemmour, former presidential candidate and ardent defender of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. , according to which immigration would constitute a threat to the existence of a “native population”.

These virulent remarks are part of a general campaign of uninhibited racism and xenophobia on social networks and in the Tunisian media. At the beginning of January, for example, the former spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior, Khalifa Chibani, deplored, on a private radio, these “Africans who are beginning to become too numerous” in the city of Sfax, in the east of the Tunisia.

A few days before President Saïed’s virulent charge, several NGOs denounced “the rise in hateful and racist speech” as well as the arrest of 300 people in just one week.

“There has always been racist discourse in Tunisia held by a minority of political leaders with regard to migrants but also to blacks of Tunisian nationality”, analyzes sociologist Vincent Geisser, specialist in the Maghreb. “What is new here is that the president is reappropriating this speech to make it a state speech on a register that is both security and identity”.

“There were already insulting and racist remarks within the political class, but this type of official discourse and the extent of their violence are new,” confirms researcher Kenza Ben Azouz, specialist in sexist and racist discrimination in Tunisia.

“Deleterious climate”

According to NGO estimates, there are between 30,000 and 50,000 sub-Saharan migrants in the territory, “i.e. a third of all migrants present in Tunisia who themselves represent only 0.5% of the population”, recalls Cameroonian engineer and activist Franck Yotedje of the think tank Afrique intelligence, which campaigns for the integration of migrants in Sfax.

If migrants are far from being able to “replace” the Tunisian population, they have been more and more visible for ten years in Tunisia. “Until the 2000s, Tunisia experienced transit immigration. Today, these are people who settle in particular because access to European territory is more and more complicated”, explains Vincent Geisser .

“This is a student body and workforce that benefits Tunisia both economically and culturally. Yet they are silenced and criminalized by inconsistent laws and administrative processes that therefore make them easily exploitable and expose them to all types of abuse, particularly sexual,” says Kenza Ben Azouz, who insists on the great insecurity of migrant women in Tunisia.

For this community, this campaign has already had concrete consequences. “Some migrants who have been working for years in full view of the authorities have been driven out of their jobs without compensation. Others have been driven out of their accommodation by landlords who were asked by the police to stop hosting ‘Africans’ as they say. It’s a pretty deleterious climate,” sighs Franck Yotedje.

>> To read on the Observers: In Tunisia, “roundups” and repeated attacks against sub-Saharans exacerbate xenophobia

Beyond the migration issue, NGOs point to a campaign that stigmatizes all black people present in Tunisia: illegal or regular migrants, students, but also Tunisian citizens. “Tunisians often speak of ‘Africans’ in general to emphasize the strangeness of being black. For some, this means being without civilization and without culture. There is also a very strong link that is made with crime”, explains Shreya Parikh, researcher at Sciences-Po and specialist in racial issues in Tunisia.

“There are still a lot of systemic inequalities and abuses especially in the south of the country but also in the big cities in the north. Black Tunisians are still not treated as an integral part of the Tunisian identity and population. In the end, the state has never done the groundwork to understand why we do not see ourselves as Africans,” says Kenza Ben Azouz.

A conspiratorial rhetoric

Tunisia has, however, experienced significant legislative progress in the fight against discrimination and racist violence thanks to the mobilization of associations born in the wake of the 2010 revolution. Certain tragic news items have also served as an electric shock, in particular the savage attack on three Congolese in Tunis in 2016. Two years later, the deputies adopted a law criminalizing racist remarks, incitement to hatred and discrimination.

But in fact, almost nothing has changed, deplore anti-racist activists. Witness the growing visibility of an obscure political formation: the Tunisian Nationalist Party, recognized by the state since December 2018. “It is a fascist party that propagates a conspiracy theory worthy of the great replacement” details the essayist Hatem Nafti, on the antenna of France 24.

“The exit of the president is confusing because it can give the impression of a form of legitimacy to this kind of individuals who incite racial hatred and commit illegal actions”, worries Franck Yotedje.

As the country sinks into a deep economic crisis, it is also difficult not to detect political ulterior motives in the violent charge of Kaïs Saïed. “All of this is in his interest. It’s always easier to point the finger at migrants than to initiate economic reforms or strengthen food sovereignty to fight against shortages,” stings Shreya Parikh.

>> To read: From the coup de force of Kaïs Saïed to the legislative elections, how Tunisia got bogged down in the crisis

Caught in the debt trap, the Tunisian state is struggling to finance its imports and the population has had to deal for months with inflation that exceeds 10% and food shortages of milk and basic necessities. “There are objective elements put forward by the government such as the post-Covid-19 recovery, the war in Ukraine, but there is also this presidential speech which favors (…) the conspiracy theory to explain the economic problems” , analyzes Hatem Nafti.

“One day, Kaïs Saïed attacked small entrepreneurs whom he accused of stockpiling to starve the people, another day journalists, political partiesto unions or to NGOs that would serve foreign interests”, says Vincent Geisser. “For two years, the very essence of his speeches has been to say that the country is a victim of occult forces from abroad. Beyond the temporary designation of a scapegoat, conspiracy has actually become the main element of his rhetoric.

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