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Tunisia’s Authoritarian Descent Takes New Turn With Migrant Crackdown

Immigrants living in terror after president’s racist speech – but many in country welcome strongman’s power grab

A group of men and women from Sierra Leone gathered by makeshift tarpaulin tents outside the offices of the International Organisation for Migration in Tunis. The outline of small children could be seen wriggling beneath the cheap nylon blankets wrapped around their parents, as they tried to escape the cold and rain-flecked wind that blew in off the nearby lake.

A young man, withholding his name, spoke for all. “They came for us with knives and machetes,” he said. “They robbed us. They kicked down the door and dragged us from our apartment.

“Now we are here,” he added, waving to the hundred or so people sheltering in and around the tents.

Tunisia’s black immigrants have been on edge since 21 February, when the country’s president, Kais Saied, made an incendiary, racist speech that claimed irregular migration from other parts of Africa was part of an international plot to change Tunisia’s character.

In the days and weeks since, migrant families say they have been evicted from their homes, children in nurseries have been seized by officials, and entire neighbourhoods have been raided. Many people have not left their homes in fear of being targeted. Such is the perceived scale of the threat that the governments of Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea have all organised evacuation flights for their people.

Saied’s speech was the latest in a series of assaults on democratic norms. He came to power in 2019 and, since 2021, has embarked on a far-reaching power grab, sacking the government, freezing then dissolving parliament, and pushing through a new constitution granting him almost unlimited powers. Elections for the new legislature, which will have almost no authority to hold the president to account, were boycotted by the main parties, with turnout pitifully low.

In recent months, as Saied’s rhetoric has become increasingly authoritarian, Tunisia’s security forces have arrested prominent opposition figures and people in the media, prompting concern among rights groups and international observers that what little remains of the country’s fragile democratic progress since the Arab spring was being obliterated.

The crackdown on immigrants and Saied’s political opponents has, however, won him favour among many in his working-class political base, who have been at the sharp end of a dire economic crisis.

“We’ve always supported the president, but more so since these arrests,” Chaima Anouar said from her market stall in a working-class neighbourhood in Soukra, near the capital. “He’s cleaning the country.

“The people just want their money back,” she added, echoing long-held complaints about corruption among the political establishment that Saied has sidelined. Food shortages and rising prices, Anouar said, were the result of young people not wanting to work.

Others welcomed the return to prominence of the security services, once the attack dogs of the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who ruled from 1987 until being ousted in the revolution of 2011.

“The police are back,” said Jaouhar, a local cafe owner, approvingly. “They were gone, but now they’re back.”

Saied’s crackdown on undocumented sub-Saharan immigrants has taken place in the context of the rise of the hitherto unknown Parti Nationaliste Tunisien, which has been pushing a racist agenda relentlessly since early February. The party has flooded social media with conspiracy theories and dubiously edited videos that have encouraged Tunisians to report on undocumented neighbours before they can “colonise” the country – the same conspiratorial language adopted by Saied.

In the wake of legislative elections whose pitifully low turnout exposed the president’s failure to mobilise his support, two protests took place this weekend, both seeking to claim legitimacy through strength of numbers.

On Saturday, Tunisia’s powerful trade union, the UGTT, brought several thousand people to the street, a demonstration of strength containing within it a degree of support for the country’s undocumented black migrants. On Sunday, the National Salvation Front defied a ban on protest, mobilising hundreds to protest the arrest of many of their leadership and call for the president to step down.

However, in the working class reaches of Soukra, where many undocumented people live, Tunisians told stories of murder and rape, always witnessed at one remove. “They’re selling cocaine, they’re selling their wives and their girlfriends to each other. They’re even buying boats and taking still more migrants to Europe,” said Bassem Khazmi, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler.

The crackdown on immigrants has had another effect: the return to the streets of a young generation of activists whose contempt for the former established political class has left them relatively unmoved by Saied’s power grab.

“Why did we come out?” asked Henda Chennaoui, one of the principal figures in the country’s new Front Antifasciste. “Because that was the first time in the history of the republic that the president used fascist and racist speech to discriminate against the most vulnerable and the marginalised.

“We think what Kais Saied did with that speech, is legitimise all criminals and all crimes against the black community in Tunisia, including black Tunisians who are also victims of racist acts,” she said. “The president of the republic is supposed to respect human rights, humanity and the law. We didn’t expect him to appropriate such extremes without any thought for the consequences.”

Those consequences were hard to avoid outside the IOM building, where Levi, who comes from Nigeria, tilted his head to show an injury to his eye. He said he had been attacked by children while on his way to the shops, with one throwing a rock at him. “I didn’t do anything [to provoke them],” he said. Asked if he had reported the incident to the police, he simply laughed.

Source : The Guardian