Race riots the latest evidence of Tunisia's malaise
With a cult of personality taking shape, parliament’s back broken and a neutered political opposition, Kais Saied’s Tunisia is a world away from the one that gave birth to the Jasmine Revolution in 2011.
Home to what had once been the only successful transition of power to democracy following the wave of regional protests, Tunisia’s liberals have been enveloped by an authoritarian centralization of power, while the country’s economy has been deemed “bankrupt,” according to the most recent rating agency reports. As national government debt has soared to four times gross domestic product, the otherwise-welcoming and peaceful country has been host to a stark increase in racist attacks and state-sanctioned arbitrary arrests of sub-Saharan migrants — a telling trait of a society that is broken.
Despite soaring youth unemployment, a precarious fiscal situation and looming authoritarianism, Tunisian society has miraculously retained a certain calm. However, events in recent days — typified by the frenzied plight of Tunisia’s sub-Saharan African community — show the extent of the malaise across all aspects of society.
Saied last month denounced undocumented sub-Saharan African immigration to Tunisia in a meeting with the National Security Council. In comments that were later published online, the president declared that the arrivals were aimed at changing Tunisia’s demographic makeup. He said: “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.”
Playing on recent social media campaigns that have focused on the issue, the president has arranged for a makeshift prison to detain migrants, who now also face heavy fines and public bullying despite already dealing with the travails of the legal limbo they occupy.
In the wake of the record low voter turnout (the lowest since the 2011 revolution) at the December-January parliamentary elections, Saied has stoked xenophobic tensions to divert attention from the country’s impending catastrophe and his government’s inability to remedy it. Though the constitutional coup that brought him to power was seen by a large block of Tunisian society as a welcome opportunity to embolden the executive to reorder the country’s political and economic life, Saied no longer enjoys widespread public support.
The president’s efforts to rally the population around the issue of African migrants, whose presence has, in all fairness, increased the strain on the fragile Tunisian economy, have resulted in a situation whereby sub-Saharan Africans are facing a surge of racist acts. He is not the first authoritarian to stoke up public fear and xenophobia to shore up his position amid rising food prices, unemployment and political instability. Black Tunisians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s population, have also been mistakenly targeted in racist attacks, bringing home the cost of irresponsible populism.
Events in recent days — typified by the frenzied plight of Tunisia’s sub-Saharan African community — show the extent of the malaise across all aspects of society.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Last week’s attacks are only the latest controversy surrounding Saied, who seized power in 2021, dissolving the country’s democratically elected parliament. Amid several other authoritarian actions, Saied has accused “traitors,” who have been arrested as part of the latest crackdown, of “price fixing,” “market manipulation,” and “hoarding.” Such fifth columnist rhetoric ties into a wider narrative that has characterized the president’s escalating confrontation with critics who accuse him of a coup and who the security forces have now arrested.
Tunisia last week banned a protest by the country’s main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, but the group pressed ahead and on Sunday demonstrated against “political arrests and violations against public and individual freedoms.” The protest came as the governor of Tunis, Kamel Feki, said such marches had “not been approved as some of its leaders are suspected of plotting against state security.”
Last month, the president’s eccentricity in regards to counter-coups and plots against him reached a new low as he accused Esther Lynch, the Irish general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, of making statements that “interfered with Tunisian internal affairs” when she spoke during a protest organized by the Tunisian General Labour Union. Thereafter expelled from the country, she was spirited out in scenes reminiscent of the darkest days of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s police state.
Within this context, the EU and US continue to “express concern.” Their reticence and Tunisia’s relative economic insignificance make the situation easy to ignore. The Saied government has long surrendered any semblance of democratic transition and its impending authoritarianism is drastically reducing the willingness of international partners to invest in Tunisia and, more importantly, provide the bailout the country needs.
Tunisia’s race riots are just the latest social disturbance caused by the country’s increasing instability. To truly support the Tunisian people, international parties must condition future financial assistance on reforms and a term limit for Saied’s tenure. Tunisia’s powerful security apparatus should not expect foreign funding until they get behind a return to democratic rule.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.