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Migrant Lives

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.

Photo of woman protesting against Tunisian President Kais Saied  in Tunis

A protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied after his statement against African migrants

Pierre Haski


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.

Photo of African migrant staging a sit-in in front of the UNHCR headquarter in Tunis

African migrants stage a sit-in in front of the UNHCR headquarter in Tunis to demand better conditions while in Tunisia

Hasan Mrad/Zuma

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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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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