After Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed's remarks on migrants, sub-Saharan countries reacted. By launching the hunt for sub-Saharan migrants, the head of state made a big mistake.
It is far away, the month of October 2018. Tunisia adopted, at the time, a law against racial discrimination, the first in the Arab world. Several deputies then made this law a priority. “Tunisia was the first Muslim country to abolish slavery, and we are among the first to have signed the United Nations Convention in 1965 against racial discrimination. Today's vote is a logical development. We took time to do it but it is there, and we can be proud to be the first in the Arab world”, indicated then the deputy Raouf El May.
In a country where anti-Black racism was well anchored, it was then a question of penalizing this racism hitherto authorized by law. The legal arsenal put in place was promising, with penalties of up to one year in prison for racist remarks and up to three years in prison for racist threats or incitement to hatred. In ten years, the number of sub-Saharan students present in Tunisia had been halved, in particular because of racist acts, then assured the Association of African Students and Trainees in Tunisia (AESAT).
A law, but for what?
But despite the law, it is difficult to put an end to systemic racism. Beyond the anti-Black remarks, Tunisia has indeed been singled out several times for the persistent inequalities between Tunisians and Sub-Saharans. Proof of this is with the "abid cemetery" - understand "slave cemetery" - in Djerba, where black Tunisians are buried apart from the others, who have the right to the cemeteries of the ahrar, "free men". “In the eyes of Tunisians, to be black is to be solely a descendant of slaves. We are not accepted as natives of North Africa", lamented Saadia Mosbah, of the Mnemty association, who believes that "if it recognizes the status of victim to the person attacked, (the law against racism) remains however a very small law because the means did not follow”.
Today, indeed, difficult to think that racism has disappeared in Tunisia. The fault, in part, of Habib Bourguiba, the first president of independent Tunisia. In the 1950s and 1960s, he launched reforms to "modernize the Tunisian people" and participated in making black people invisible in Tunisia. Since then, "there has been a denial in Tunisian society, the African is the other", assures historian Nouri Boukhchim, teacher-researcher at the University of Tunis, who believes that Tunisians no longer surrender realize that they live in an African country. “The gaze of Tunisians is turned towards the Mediterranean, towards the north and not towards the south. This is how we moved away from our Africanness, in the name of the unification of the Tunisian people”. A desire for unification that continued under Ben Ali, before blacks could finally have the right to protest after 2011.
The Great Replacement theory, Tunisian version
And while Tunisia was thought to be on the right track, the Tunisian president came to say aloud what many of his compatriots are quietly thinking. Last week, Kaïs Saïed indeed advocated “urgent measures” against sub-Saharan illegal immigration. Going so far as to ensure that sub-Saharans were the source of "violence, crimes and unacceptable acts". Migrations would be, according to the Head of State, a conspiracy hatched by foreign powers who would like to erase the "Arab-Muslim" identity of Tunisia to make it an "African only" country.
Since then, in Tunisia, the atmosphere is heavy. Even threatening for blacks, whether they are illegal immigrants or not. Officially, more than 20 sub-Saharan Africans would be present on Tunisian soil, the majority of whom are in an irregular situation, blocked by administrative difficulties for years. After three months in Tunisia, for sub-Saharan Africans, it is often impossible to obtain a residence card, and each additional day spent there consolidates their status as illegal immigrants. But from now on, these Sub-Saharans are accused, by the highest representative of the State, of all evils.
Statements that have worried in Africa. The African Union Commission "strongly condemns the shocking statements made by the Tunisian authorities against fellow Africans, which go against the letter and spirit of our organization and our founding principles", according to a press release. press release which “reminds all countries, in particular Member States of the African Union, that they must honor their obligations under international law (…), namely to treat all migrants with dignity, d 'wherever they come from, to refrain from any hate speech of a racist nature, likely to harm people, and to give priority to their safety and their fundamental rights'.
The African Union shocked by Kaïs Saïed
African chancelleries fear the worst. In the hours that followed Kaïs Saïed's statements, the embassies of Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and even Burkina Faso asked their nationals present in Tunisia to be careful, offering them procedures for a "voluntary return" to their country. According to our information, within the palace of Carthage, we regret the exit of the Tunisian president about sub-Saharan migrants. But too late: these remarks should cause a diplomatic rupture between the North African country and the rest of Africa.
The logical continuation of an African disinterest on the part of Kaïs Saïed. “Tunisians tend to forget that they are part of Africa. This continent does not interest the Head of State, very inhabited by Arab nationalist ideology and therefore essentially turned towards the Arab world”, deplored, in 2021, the historian Sophie Bessis. “Twenty years ago, Tunisia was the only Maghreb country to carry out major diplomatic action in Africa. Today, he is practically the only one who does not lead one," said Mohsen Toumi, a former UN expert, in the book "The Maghreb and its South: the African Economic Challenge" published by the CNRS… in 2011. Since the fall of Ben Ali, not only has Tunisia refused to turn to sub-Saharan Africa. Worse, with his remarks, President Kaïs Saïed isolates himself more and more. And will have a hard time finding allies in the future.