Another World Leader Stokes Racist Fears Of Immigration — In Tunisia
Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed's xenophobic claims that a conspiracy aims to replace Tunisians with sub-Saharan migrants has unleashed racist violence in the country. It's a sign of the growing authoritarianism of the popular but powerless president.
PARIS — When he suspended democratic institutions and gave himself absolute power last year, Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed responded to critics by echoing a retort from French General Charles de Gaulle: "It is not at my age that I will begin a career as a dictator."
But after recent events in Tunisia, that's becoming harder to believe.
Not only has the Tunisian head of state revived the country's tradition of authoritarianism, but he has now plunged the country into a racist nightmare by singling out sub-Saharan immigrants for popular hatred. Hunts for migrants have been reported in the major city of Sfax, leaving many hiding in fear.
The African Union has criticized Saïed's "shocking statements."
Last week, the Tunisian president said that "clandestine immigration is a conspiracy to alter Tunisia's demographics, so that it is seen as an African country only, and not an Arab and Muslim country."
This Tunisian version of the "Great Replacement" theory, put forward by right-wing extremists around the world, has received support on Twitter from Éric Zemmour, the unsuccessful French presidential candidate who is one of the theory's proponents.
Distraction from political deadlock
If the incredible claims seen on Tunisian social media are to be believed, there are up to two million sub-Saharan migrants living in Tunisia, out of a population of 13 million Tunisians. This is improbable: experts on migration put the number at about 25,000, a tiny fraction of the population.
But this isn't the fundamental issue. Rather, it's that Black migrants have become scapegoats for Tunisia's economic and social crisis. For months, social media has been filled with attacks against migrants. But now, what were once echoes from the fringes of the web are endorsed by the highest levels of government.
The context is significant: Saïed is facing a political deadlock. Participation in the last legislative elections was less than 10%. Like everywhere in the world, foreigners are an easy target to divert attention.
African migrants stage a sit-in in front of the UNHCR headquarter in Tunis to demand better conditions while in Tunisia
Saïed's authoritarian turn
The President still enjoys strong popularity after ending the political chaos that paralyzed the country in 2021, and neutralizing the influence of the Islamist party Ennahdha. And despite the low election turnout, people still trust the man who presents himself as the politician who can save Tunisia.
Tunisian civil society now faces a new challenge embodied by the hunt for migrants.
But Saïed's recent shift is worrying. The president has arrested peaceful opponents, journalists and trade unionists, risking the wrath of the powerful UGTT trade union, which until now has remained moderate.
Tunisian civil society, which has shown its vivacity over the 12 years since the country's revolution, now faces a new challenge, embodied by the hunt for migrants and the crackdown on the government's political opponents.
This fall, Franco-Tunisian author Hatem Nafti published an essay entitled "Tunisia: Towards Authoritarian Populism?" followed by a question mark.
Now, that question mark is no longer needed. Kaïs Saïed, the former constitutional law professor, has brought back methods that Tunisians hoped had been defeated forever.
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