Kais Saied claims migrants are part of campaign to make country ‘purely African’ in move critics say is to distract from economic crisis
Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, has told a meeting of security officials that migrants are part of a wider campaign to change the demographic makeup of the country and make it “purely African”.
The president’s comments come alongside an extensive crackdown on critics and opposition figures in a campaign that human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have labelled a witch-hunt.
Addressing Tunisia’s national security council on Tuesday, Saied called for urgent action to halt the flow of sub-Saharan migrants into the country. “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,” he said, going on to accuse unnamed parties of complicity in a “criminal arrangement made since the beginning of this century to alter the demographic structure of Tunisia”.
Saied’s speech has sparked alarm in a country that prides itself on being welcoming to foreigners.
A public meeting on Wednesday night in Tunis, called in response to the president’s comments, heard testimonies from migrant families being evicted from their homes, children in nurseries being seized by officials and raids on entire neighbourhoods. Many migrants have also reported not venturing outdoors for days for fear of arrest or detention.
Outside the meeting, where participants had spilled out into the corridor, Saadia Mosbah, president of the anti-racism association Mnemty, said: “We are Tunisians and the security of Tunisia and its sustainability is our business, too”
Aesat, Tunisia’s largest union for sub-Saharan students, also issued a statement, calling on members to leave their houses only when necessary and to carry documentation.
The little-known Nationalist party has been campaigning in recent weeks for the authorities to identify and expel undocumented migrants from the country. The message was gaining momentum before being adopted by the president.
Saied’s rhetoric around demographic change has little historical grounding in Tunisia, though it has won him praise from the French far-right politician Éric Zemmour.
“It is a racist approach, just like the campaigns in Europe,” Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), was reported as saying by Reuters. “The presidential campaign aims to create an imaginary enemy for Tunisians to distract them from their basic problems,” he said.
Tunisia’s vulnerable migrant community is the target for Saied, who has labelled his opponents traitors and terrorists, and on several occasions has accused critics of conspiring to assassinate him.
As well as more than a dozen opponents detained over the past two weeks, police are also reported to have arrested two other critics of the president: the leader of the Republican party and prominent opposition figure Issam Chebbi and Chaima Issa, an activist who took part in the 2011 revolution. Police are searching for a further opponent, Jaouhar Ben M’barek.
Many observers see the president’s campaign as an attempt to distract people from the problems of daily life and the state of the Tunisian economy and to deflect anger from his own role since he suspended the country’s fractious parliament in July 2021.
Many staple foodstuffs, such as coffee, sugar and rice – all subsidised by the government – have largely vanished from supermarkets as the government struggles to pay subsidies. Meanwhile, Saied’s relations with Tunisia’s powerful general trade union, the UGTT – not helped by his deportation of the head of the European Trade Union Confederation, Esther Lynch, who was speaking at one of its rallies – have become strained as the president and his cabinet, who are negotiating a fresh IMF bailout, consider ending energy and food subsidies, which is likely to hit the poorest workers hard.
Despite the government’s increasingly draconian rule, Tunisia’s opposition remains splintered. On 14 January, anniversary of the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during the 2011 revolution, there were also protests against Saied’s rule in the centre of the capital, Tunis, and its outskirts.
Source : The Guardian