It was not Saied who introduced anti-Black racism to Tunisia

But the country cannot eliminate this old societal ill and mend its relations with its sub-Saharan neighbours under his divisive and hateful regime.

Sub-saharan migrants camp outdoors in front of the International Organization for Migration
People from sub-Saharan African countries camp outdoors in front of the International Organization for Migration office as they seek shelter and protection amid attacks on them, in Tunis, Tunisia, on Thursday, March 2, 2023 [Hassene Dridi/AP Photo]

Late last month, Tunisia’s authoritarian President Kais Saied borrowed yet another page from the global neo-fascist playbook and engaged in anti-Black racism to unleash a reign of terror.

At a February meeting of the National Security Council, he described undocumented Black African immigrants as “hordes” bringing “violence and crime” to Tunisia. He then went on to embrace the white supremacist “great replacement” conspiracy theory and allege that immigration from sub-Saharan African countries is aimed at changing Tunisia’s demographic composition.

“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” Saied said, adding that the influx of irregular migrants to the country must quickly be ended.

The president’s blatantly racist comments triggered a wave of violence and abuse against thousands of Black Africans who reside, study and work in Tunisia, as well as Black Tunisian citizens who make up some 10 percent of the country’s population.

Many of the estimated 21,000 sub-Saharan African immigrants in Tunisia lost their jobs and housing overnight. Hundreds have been arbitrarily arrested and placed in wretched detention centres. Black people, including those with Tunisian citizenship, said they started facing racial abuse on the streets. Fearing for their lives, dozens of immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries started camping outside the International Organization for Migration headquarters in Tunis, while others tried to protect themselves by seeking refuge in the embassies of their home countries. Several African countries, worried about the wellbeing of their citizens residing in the country, launched repatriation schemes.

On social media, racist accounts moved to amplify Saied’s divisive message using xenophobic rhetoric and started encouraging mob violence against “criminal” Black Africans.

Meanwhile, many Tunisian media outlets tried to downplay the danger posed by Saied’s conspiratorial remarks with whataboutery. In local radios and newspapers, a large number of journalists and commentators tried to defend the president’s anti-Black and anti-immigration tirade by pointing to strict immigration  policies of some Western and African states. They also claimed the xenophobic crackdown on so-called “illegal immigrants” is a legitimate and necessary measure to maintain order and protect the sociocultural character of the country.

Only when the African Union and the World Bank paused their partnerships with Tunisia over the president’s remarks, and international rights organisations issued strong condemnations, did the president and his supporters start to backpedal.

During a meeting with Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló on March 8, Saied claimed his remarks about migrants had been “maliciously misinterpreted” by his enemies. Categorically denying accusations of racism, he went on to say he had Black friends in law school and some of his family members are married to sub-Saharan Africans.

And the president was not alone in attempting to whitewash his racist comments – and with them Tunisia’s anti-Black racism problem – by alluding to baseless conspiracy theories, unspecified “enemies” and far-fetched political plots.

In the face of a massive international backlash, some in the Tunisian media who have been tacitly supporting the president’s racist rhetoric suggested the growing anti-Black sentiment in the country is caused not by racism, but a very real fear of demographic replacement. Others claimed by attacking migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Saied is merely trying to win favour with European allies who are themselves promoting violent anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies..

Of course, the idea that a considerable number of Tunisians are afraid that migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who make up less than one percent of Tunisia’s population of 12 million, would “change the demographic makeup” of the country is absurd. The same goes for the assumption that Saied’s regime is demonising a tiny racial minority as a political strategy to win over European allies such as Italy and France.

Saied said what he said because he knew that his attacks on Black migrants would resonate with the authoritarian, fascistic and racist tendencies of his supporters. Because he realised that the vicious targeting of a vulnerable minority would intimidate his opponents and provide his regime with a new venue to exercise its power and demonstrate its authority. He said what he said because he thought he could gain politically from stoking violence and hatred against migrants.

There is, after all, little that is new in Saied’s war against sub-Saharan migrants. Since obtaining absolute power in a 2021 coup, the president has been waging war against various groups, from the judiciary to unions and politicians. The violent vocabulary he used to attack his other perceived “enemies” -“criminals”, “traitors”, “terrorists” – is almost identical to the one he now uses to demonise Black migrants. And the tactics he used to intimidate and silence his critics in the past – arbitrary arrests, state violence and lawfare – are now being used against sub-Saharan Africans.

But why did the president’s attack on Black migrants so quickly translate into widespread mob violence against sub-Saharan Africans? Why did so many across different sections of Tunisian society, including some who are often critical of the president and his dictatorial regime, felt the need to defend his arguments and alleged worries about the so-called “illegals”?

The answer is clear: The president’s racist comments received widespread support because anti-Black racism in Tunisia is pervasive and permeates through all social, cultural, and political strata.

Tunisia has a complex relationship with race and racism.

On the one hand, Tunisians pride themselves on being the first Muslim country to officially abolish slavery, in 1846. Tunisian people’s perceived historical support for the emancipation of the enslaved Black population still runs deep in the national imagination. Furthermore, those who are religious or live by core Islamic values view standing up to racism as a religious and moral duty. In 2019, the Tunisian parliament passed the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Act, which defines and criminalises racial discrimination. This law was celebrated as another first in the Arab world.

On the other hand, many Tunisians still see themselves as “white” and culturally and socially superior to Black Africans. They continue to buy into the harmful and divisive colonial idea that Africa is a continent with two distinct parts – “civilised white Africa” in the north and “primitive Black Africa” to the south of the Sahara. This sense of racial, cultural and civilisational superiority guides the language used in Tunisian media and even academia. Tunisian historians and academics often attempt to whitewash the impact of the Arab slave trade on Africa. After independence, there has been little effort to decolonise the toxic and violent discourse that mediates how Tunisians perceive sub-Saharan Africans and engage with them. Racist words and expressions are still casually used to describe Black Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans across the country, football commentators still refer to “jungles of Africa” when talking about sub-Saharan countries, and local investors still view sub-Saharan markets as ripe for conquest, exploitation and extraction.

The co-existence of these opposing legacies in the national consciousness explains the speed with which the migrant crackdown occurred after the president’s racist speech as well as the reasoning and motivation behind the “no to racism” marches that followed the events.

President Saied did not introduce anti-Black racism to Tunisia – he is simply taking advantage of an existing societal ill to further his own agenda. He has successfully managed to mobilise anger and economic despair to fracture the country and make public enemies out of Black African immigrants. By putting a target on the backs of Black Africans in the country he has also widened the existing rift between Tunisians and their sub-Saharan neighbours.

Tunisia has a very long way to go to confront and tackle its anti-Black racism problem. It needs to examine its self-image as an anti-racist nation and urgently take measures to eliminate prejudices that continue to influence public opinion and gave way to racial violence. The country, however, cannot embark on this difficult but necessary journey under the guidance of a president who is willing to incite racial violence for political leverage. The only way for Tunisia to mend its relations with its sub-Saharan neighbours, live up to its claim of being an anti-racist trailblazer in the Arab world, and start treating everyone within its borders with basic human decency is through toppling the Saied regime.

For Tunisia to heal, grow and prosper as an African nation, Saied and his regime need to go – and fast.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.