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Tunisia’s anti-migrant discourse: ‘A way to distract from the country’s problems’

Hundreds of protesters rallied in Tunis on Sunday, demanding the release of more than 20 opposition figures who were arrested in recent weeks. The demonstration came a day after more than 3,000 joined a rally organised by the UGTT trade union against what Amnesty International has called a “politically motivated witch hunt”. Protesters also condemned the violent attacks sub-Saharan nationals have faced in recent days, following an anti-immigration speech made by President Saïed on February 21.

The demonstration took place after well-known dissidents suffered weeks of arrests in the first major crackdown on opposition figures since Saïed’s July 2021 power grab. Protesters also condemned the violent attacks sub-Saharan nationals have faced in recent days, following an anti-immigration speech made by Saïed on February 21.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Vincent Geisser, research fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Maghreb specialist, to gain insight into the situation.

FRANCE 24: What impact could these protests against President Kaïs Saïed have?
Vincent Geisser: The aim of these protests is to show that, in the context of repression, the streets belong to the Tunisian people. It’s also a way to maintain a peaceful balance of power with the president, and stop him from controlling public spaces. Activists are currently finding themselves under surveillance. They don’t want to relive the trauma of Ben Ali’s dictatorship (president of Tunisia from 1987 to 2011), when protests were banned. They want to believe there’s something to be gained from demonstrating, besides repression and arrests.

By calling on President Saïed to open a “dialogue”, the UGTT union, who wants to represent the whole of Tunisian society and not only its workforce, believes in a pacifist solution, whereas the president tends to respond with repression. Unfortunately, the mass arrests of prominent dissidents, journalists and NGOs will keep happening. And I’m not sure the protests will convince ordinary citizens to join in the fight. Fear is returning to Tunisia.

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We mustn’t overlook the portion of Tunisian society who thinks the president is right, especially regarding his stance on immigrants. Part of the population has been complicit in reporting illegal immigrants [to authorities], hence the arrests and attacks many sub-Saharans have suffered recently.

How do you explain the arrival of the great replacement theory in Tunisian politics?
Since the coup that took place on July 25, 2021, President Saïed has used conspiratorial rhetoric and obsessed over foreign interference, as well as Tunisians with links to foreigners. He also finds himself in a situation where his European interlocutors are putting pressure on Tunisia to curb illegal immigration.

Saïed is both sustaining and instigating anti-Black and anti-African racist sentiments that have existed for many years. Within the Tunisian political system, MPs who attack their colleagues in parliament is an illustration of how racist hate speech has been unleashed, for example. Racist hate speech has become commonplace since the 2011 revolution.

When Ben Ali was president, racism and xenophobia existed, but political discourse was restricted. The only difference today, and this is unprecedented, is that the head of state made openly racist remarks based on the great replacement theory in a public speech.

Saïed has linked his discourse on security to strong connotations of identity. He insists on defending “Tunisianness”, a sort of Tunisian purity that he says is threatened by an African plot on immigration. He believes the “real” Tunisian exists. And this discourse doesn’t only apply to sub-Saharan Africans, he doesn’t think homosexual people are “real” Tunisians either.

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What are the main issues behind this political streak?
It’s a way to distract people from the socio-economic problems Tunisia is facing. People need scapegoats. Former MPs are being blamed for ruining the country, the powerful UGTT union is being criticised and media outlets who counter Saïed’s stance are accused of having foreign ties.

But it’s important to note that this isn’t just a political stunt, a slip up or a temporary discourse. Tunisian diplomacy hasn’t done anything to calm the situation. Even during the Ben Ali era, there were attempts to make up for it.

This is a major part of President Saïed’s political agenda. While he doesn’t provide political, social or economic overviews, he does explain on a daily basis that problems come from abroad. It’s a fundamental element of his policy. He is convinced that Tunisia is the victim of a global plot.

This isn’t grandstanding or a desire to divert, but a political practice that is well established in presidential logic. But by doing all of this, Saïed is losing more and more credibility. He is contributing to Tunisia’s isolation and a breakdown of dialogue between Arab countries and Europe, the US and Africa.