Black Racial Politics and the Racialist Populist Backlash during Tunisia’s Democratic Transition

Houda Mzioudet, University of Toronto

 

In December 2018, the Ivorian community in Tunisia was rocked by the brutal murder of Falikou Coulibaly, the president of the Association of Ivorians in Tunisia (AIT), in the northern Tunis suburb of Raoued. What was later described as a racially motivated murder happened two months after Tunisia’s Assembly of the Representatives of People unanimously passed Law 50-2018 that criminalizes racial discrimination based on skin color. Violent attacks on the different Sub-Saharan African communities became frequent after the 2010–2011 revolution and have escalated since a brutal wave of attacks on Congolese students in downtown Tunis in December 2016 by a Tunisian man. While that attack was not deemed racially motivated, the pressure from mainly Black Tunisian civil society activists forced the government of then-prime minister Youssef Chahed to take an official stance and declare a day for the fight against racial discrimination. This act was considered a small success for Black Tunisian activists in getting their repressed voices heard and highlighting the urgency of addressing rampant and endemic anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned discrimination against Black Tunisians, who make up some 10–15 percent of the population.

Despite Chahed’s concession, anti-Black racism escalated after the election of populist President Kais Saied in 2019. On February 21, 2023, Saied made a racially charged accusation that Black Africans have a malevolent and secret plan to replace the Tunisian population with a Black African one, thus tampering with its demographic structure and its Arabic-Islamic identity and wreaking havoc with violence and criminality (Akrimi, 2023; Geisser, 2023). Migrants thus became the “usual suspects” who threaten the Tunisian nation-state (Akrimi, 2023). Saied needed a constant scapegoat (Speakman-Cordall, 2023) to cover for his failure in addressing the economic crisis and found Black Africans to be a soft target. His supporters used his statement to double down on anti-migrant rhetoric that stoked violence against Black Africans, including calls for murder. This was compounded with xenophobia about the perils of a Black invasion and a paranoid conspiracy theory that compared the presence of Black Africans in Tunisia to Jewish colonists and Zionist occupation in Palestine by pointing to Afro-Zionism (Geisser, 2023; Marks, 2023). In the face of these supposed existential threats, the president’s staunch supporters called for the cleansing of Tunisia in the same way Saied waged a campaign to cleanse the country of his opponents. Some even called for the internment and massive deportation of Black Africans (Marks, 2023).

This paper argues that Tunisia’s turbulent democratic transition precipitated an unexpected rise in xenophobic, anti-Black racism that has mainly targeted Sub-Saharan Africans, be they irregular and transitory migrants or legal residents among the student community. This has been exacerbated by Saied’s conspiratorial persona, his populism, and his autocratic regime that after July 2021 purged political dissidents. Sub-Saharan African migrants constitute the perfect scapegoat for a populist leader like Saied, whose politics consists of fighting the enemy within, the “Other” as it were, while giving it a xenophobic character that specifically targets Black African migrants as a threat to Tunisia’s Arab-Islamic identity.

Post-Revolution Black Tunisian Activism

The 2010–2011 Tunisian uprising was a watershed historical moment for Black Tunisians. Expressing anti-racist sentiments at the individual and collective levels had been unthinkable in the long decades of post-independence dictatorial regimes under presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Abdelhamid, 2018 a and b; Mrad-Dali, 2015; Mzioudet, 2018 and 2022; Scaglioni, 2020). The revolution of freedom and dignity emboldened Black Tunisian activists to break the taboo of “silent racism” they had endured since the abolition of slavery in 1846 (Mzioudet, 2018).

Denouncing racism became a hallmark of Tunisian cosmopolitanism during the revolution. For example, in the early days of the Tunisian revolution, Facebook groups that focused on the issue of anti-Black racism gathered people from different backgrounds including students, photographers, and journalists to shed light on inequality in citizenship rights for Black Tunisians. They argued for the need to review the definition of citizenship more broadly (Pouessel, 2013). In 2012, ADAM, the first Black Tunisian organization, was created. The local political mobilization of grassroots Black organizations led to the establishment of the group M’nemty in 2014 after the disbanding of ADAM in 2013. It provided momentum to the Black Tunisian movement to develop and make bold demands such as the inclusion of race in the 2014 Tunisian constitution, according to Maha Abdelhamid who was politically active in lobbying for the right of Black Tunisians to be free from any race-based discrimination. Through such organizations, Black Tunisians were able to move from the margins of civil society to the center during the revolution in order to build representation for themselves and negotiate their spatial presence (Arbi, 2023). The collective mobilization of Black Tunisian activists saw its apex during the period of the debate over the Tunisian constitution among different civil society activists on rights and freedoms in post-revolution Tunisia.

Tunisia’s democratic transition thus opened up opportunities for Black Tunisians to reclaim the public space that had been long denied to them and to publicize their cause for racial justice and equality with their light-skinned compatriots. The passing of Law 50 that criminalizes racial discrimination was the successful outcome of the coordinating efforts of Black Tunisian activists and some MPs (including the late Jamila Ksiksi, the first and only Black Tunisian MP) as well as non-Black civil society organizations working on migrants, minorities, and human rights (Mzioudet, 2022). When the law was passed, people believed that it would usher in a new era in racial politics in Tunisia and across the MENA region, viewing it as avant-garde legislation crowning years of indefatigable advocacy work by anti-racism activists. But even as there was a Black Tunisian awakening of active mobilization, a racist backlash emerged quickly in response to these advances. It is important to note that Tunisia’s historic public policy abolishing slavery did not change the general population’s mentality (Arbi, 2023). And it is also notable that the law frames “racism as an individual problem for which the State is arbitrator” (Akrimi, 2023).

From Tunisian Exceptionalism to Tunisian Paradox: The (Re-)Invention of the Tunisian Nation

Post-independence Tunisian identity was built around the omnipotence of an Arab-Islamic identity centered around a Mediterranean racial phenotype. Despite their long existence within Tunisian society, Black Tunisians’ image has been made invisible by the narrative of Tunisian exceptionalism. The imagined national community crafted by Tunisia’s first president and father of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, adopted the official narrative of a homogenous nation. This became a benchmark for national identity, public policies, and social change in Tunisian society. It focused on a common heritage that shunned anything and anyone that was different and where forms of discrimination existed under the surface and would reappear with each crisis (Arbi, 2023). In other words, underneath the homogeneous and sectarian conflict-ridden Tunisian society, lurk unsaid discriminatory practices, whose intersection created animosity, be it at the regional, ethnic, or racial level. They resurfaced after 2011, within the framework of post-dictatorship Tunisia, when questions of Tunisian identity, particularly the secular-Islamist divide, pitted Tunisians of different ideological and political hues against each other. The crisis even led to violent confrontations during the Ennahdha-led Troika government between 2011 and 2014, when hardline Islamists, mainly Salafists, confronted moderate Islamists of the Ennahdha party. These latter were also confronted by secularists, who expressed grievances about Ennahdha’s attempts to Islamicize Tunisian society. Manifestations of anti-Black racism occurred in the first months after the revolution in 2011 with instances of verbal attacks on some Black African students, which were exacerbated in 2015 with physical attacks and other hate crimes.

Bourguibism centered around an assimilative project that homogenized the Tunisian nation by taking its cue from President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s efforts at Turkification. It crafted a model where Tunisian identity superseded social, cultural, and racial differences. It adopted a color-blind policy that “emphasized Black Tunisians’ difference,” thus relegating them to a status of servitude. The paradox of this racial politics lies in the duality of a rigid color-blind policy of full citizenship, while at the same time ignoring the memory of slavery that stigmatized Black Tunisians. Bourguibism therefore failed to give Black Tunisians the same status as their non-Black Tunisian compatriots (Ltifi, 2020: 69).

It can be argued that there is a connection between post-independence Tunisian public policy and the narcissistic character of the persona of Bourguiba and his authoritarian personality. Bourguiba believed in his superiority, yet professed to care about educating the people, the Tunisian nation (the umma). He considered himself the personification of morality and distinction and thought he was endowed with an historical mission to be the father of the national community (al majmua al wataniyya) and the people. He strove to write Tunisia’s history by himself. This history was instrumentalized by those in authority and aided in internalizing racism in the population (Arbi, 2013). The narcissistic personality of a leader such as Bourguiba affects the national community and inspires the development of collective narcissism where the in-group is idealized by its unrealistic belief in its greatness through external recognition and great appreciation by others (Golec de Zavala et al., 2009 cited in Eker et al. 2022). Collective narcissism, also referred to as national narcissism, encourages patriotism and glorification of the homeland. It seeks to protect the nation’s image and has a tendency for aggrandizement. The legacy of Bourguibism helps to explain the racist policies adopted by President Saeid after 2019.

The Tunisian paradox also lies in the democratic paradox that saw a rise in racist and xenophobic attacks when authoritarianism’s grip was loosened on civil society, thus allowing public mobilization against racial discrimination as well as the trivialization of racism (Geisser, 2023), as is the case of the Tunisian Nationalist Party (TNP).[1] This party was established in December 2018, shortly after the adoption of the law criminalizing racial discrimination, Law 50-2018. Its founder Soufiene Ben Sghaier was briefly active within the ranks of Congrès Pour la République (CPR) political party, headed by former president Moncef Marzouki. Ben Sghaier was joined by two other members, and they were able to mobilize disaffected Tunisians with the Islamist-led government during the turbulent transition and fragile security situation. The surge in the number of Sub-Saharan African migrants escaping the Libyan conflict into Tunisia provided the TNP with its main battleground to attack the post-2011 uprising governments. TNP accused them of adopting an open-door policy of allowing in “illegal migrants” who, in their view, would constitute a security and existential threat to Tunisia.

Anti-Black racism predates the Tunisian revolution, however, and the idea that racism is linked to the country’s colonial heritage is a form of denialism discourse that attempts to make Tunisia seem free of racism (Geisser, 2023). Moreover, the instrumentalization of the country’s abolition of slavery serves to hide latent racism by eclipsing the memory of slavery. Anti-Black racism remains Tunisia’s biggest taboo still denied by the general population. This can be seen in the government’s refusal to admit that the president’s fiery speech about Sub-Saharan African migrants is racist, even after the African Union’s condemnation. This crisis opened the debate about this taboo, as well as the place of Black Tunisians in society, who were made invisible in public space and marginalized since the abolition of slavery in 1846. Through a combination of instrumentalizing an Arab-Islamic identity discourse while flirting with the clash of civilizations theory of Samuel Huntington, Tunisia’s symbolic Africanness emphasized Black people’s imperfect Islam or their status as second-class Muslims (Geisser, 2023).

Their so-called imperfection as Muslims is what justifies their stigmatization by a section of “light-skinned” Tunisian society.

Thus, one aspect of the Tunisian Nationalist Party’s xenophobic and anti-Black rhetoric lies in its historical revisionism that justifies its enmity towards Black Africans by virtue of their supposed inferiority. In a Tik Tok video made in 2022, the TNP produced an alternative historical narrative that rests on the conflation of Black African migrants with slaves who were brought from West Africa to Tunisia in the eighteenth century and later during the reign of the Ottoman ruler, Hamuda Pasha, in the early nineteenth century. TNP hailed Hamuda Pasha as a national hero of Tunisian independence from foreign interference for banishing freed West African slaves for their alleged corrupted morals in 1800. According to the TNP’s narrative, the Black community in Tunisia settled during the rule of Ali Bey (1735–1756) who brought them from the historical region of the Bilad Al Sudan (corresponding to the empires of Kanem-Bornu and Mali) to work as his special guards and gave them permission to set up their own clubs and associations. But, the video claims, with time they began plotting to “pervert” the Tunisian state through social clubs with administration and special courts. The video suggests that they later proved to be corrupt, spreading vice and lewdness in Muslim Tunisian society.[2] In 1800, Hamuda Pasha decided to banish them from their residences in Tunis and they became homeless across the country. The video purports that these Black people of West African descent are doomed to be marginalized for their inability to integrate into Tunisian Muslim society and therefore are like the “new colonizers” of Tunisia today, the Black African migrants. (Tunisian Nationalist Party’s Tik-Tok video, 2022).

Another aspect of the paradoxical character of Tunisian exceptionalism is the “Bilal Syndrome” that often connects anti-Black racism with Bilal, the Black Islamic figure and companion of the Prophet Mohamed. However, there is a danger of Orientalizing anti-Black racism in Tunisia as religious (Islam) and cultural (Arab) byproducts (Geisser, 2023).

The post-independence Tunisian state has thus been complicit with racism in cementing an imagined national community. Anti-Black racism “reproduces local forms of whiteness, privilege and alterity dear to nation-states,” which extends to a global white supremacy (Akrimi, 2023). In the rhetoric of the TNP, Black African “colonialism” is seen in the threatening presence of Sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia who are accused of attempting to “rewrite history” and to “make North Africa Black” (Akrimi, 2023). From this vantage point, anti-racism becomes dangerous for national unity and is stigmatized as a form of foreign interference in the healthy Tunisian body (Geisser, 2023).

Saied denied that his statements were racist and minimized the violence visited upon Black African migrants as marginal incidents (Arbi, 2023). He went on to accuse his opponents of distorting his rhetoric for malevolent reasons, which amounted to a denial of the reality of racism in favor of the purity of the people. This reveals his obsession with purifying Tunisian identity and promoting an imaginary Tunisianness that is Arab and Islamic in character and based on the values of traditional family, excessive patriotism, and people’s submission to the state’s interests.

Collective narcissism can be a predictor for populist parties or leaders and their grandiose narratives, like former American president Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again or Saied’s praise for the greatness of the Tunisian nation and its pretensions to lead the world. Additionally, national narcissism is seen in its aggrandizement and its division of society between the loyal “us” and disloyal “them” (Arbi, 2023). The conspiracy theory at the center of Saied’s February 2023 speech serves to build a separation wall between honest Tunisians who align with “his own political fiction” from Tunisian traitors who represent a national security threat (Akrimi, 2023).

Saied has also accused foreign parties and groups that stand in solidarity with migrants of having received money to destabilize the Tunisian state (Geisser, 2023). This prompted the Tunisian ministry of interior to criminalize anyone who aided evicted Black African migrants shortly after Saied’s speech, using law 2004-6 modifying law number 75-40 of May 14, 1975, which is related to passports and travel documents (FTDES, 2023). Invoking national security to justify the crackdown on Black African migrants became the Tunisian state’s raison d’être and is an example of where human rights take the backbench in the state’s national priorities and security concerns. A campaign to hunt for any person who looked “Sub-Saharan African”—whether or not they had legal or illegal status in the country—was mobilized with lynching campaigns and carried out by citizens and security forces. Security forces also warned that anyone caught sheltering Black Africans could be sued (Geisser, 2023). This campaign did not spare Black Tunisians who were the collateral damage of this ugly campaign.

The Emergence of Racial Backlash and Identitarian Politics: The Case of the Tunisian Nationalist Party

Throughout the democratic transition after the 2010–2011 revolution, populism reared its head in Tunisia with populist and nativist parties taking cues from the French far right Great Replacement Theory of Renaud Camus, anti-immigration discourse, and conspiracy theories that blew back into France’s former colonies. Indeed, Saied has reinvented Camus’ theory in a Tunisian version in which Black African migrants are seen as planning a cultural invasion of Tunisia encouraged by Afrocentrism (Geisser, 2023).

Democratization in Tunisia therefore has paradoxically produced a backlash to the discussion about race with the emergence of populism and its politics (pioneered by Saied) of supporting these conspiracy theories. The Tunisian Nationalist Party, for example, has been using nationalist, xenophobic, and extremist discourse to call for the abrogation of Law 50-2018. Its members act like vigilantes as they tour working-class neighborhoods of Tunis with high concentrations of Sub-Saharan African immigrants calling for boycotts of their businesses, refusing to rent houses to them, and even expelling some from Tunis and Sfax.

The TNP juxtaposes Tunisia’s situation in the nineteenth century following the death of Hamuda Pasha in 1814 and subsequent French colonization in 1881 with the role of foreign embassies in the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. In both cases it sees the end of one glorious era in Tunisia (pre-1814 and pre-2011) being followed by the emergence of a new one characterized by foreign occupation: in the current period by Black African “colonists” who are supposedly being aided by the European Union.[3] The role of embassies in building networks with Tunisian parties after 2011 is also seen by the TNP as mobilizing, recruiting, and infiltrating Tunisian society and as hubs for secret agents, and as similar to the situation after 1814.[4]

Alternatively, the party leadership organizes meetings at the local and regional levels where they have their own representatives and discuss the organization of their activities, including collaborating with police forces in reporting the whereabouts of irregular Sub-Saharan African migrants. After Saied’s speech, around 300 Sub-Saharan migrants were arbitrarily arrested by police (Akrimi, 2023).

Conclusion

The watershed moment of President Saeid’s February 21, 2023, speech created a moral shock for anti-racist Tunisians who had mobilized during the previous decade against anti-Black racism. One of the slogans the anti-racism protests advanced is the notion of national identity and the extent to which Tunisian identity is rooted in its Africanness. Saeid’s discourse left them with a feeling of shame (Geisser, 2023). The Tunisian state’s forced amnesia of the country’s history of racism is tantamount to the dictatorship tools of collective amnesia about decades of systemic human rights violations, torture, and abuse of dissenting voices. Saied is using the same techniques to erase not only a decade of democratic small gains, albeit meagre, but is also discarding the “Black Decade” as fake democracy. In distorting historical facts, resorting to conspiracy theory and Orwellian newspeak, Tunisia has become dystopian. Under his autocratic rule lies anti-Black racism and his espousal of the Great Replacement theory. Authoritarian restoration signals the demise of the Tunisian democratic experience.

Digging into Tunisia’s racial taboo can encourage citizens to re-think the legacy of slavery in Tunisia. Saied’s speech represented a moment of racial reckoning, compelling Tunisians to look into the mirror and reconsider their complex identity and reconcile their Arab and Islamic identity with their alienated African identity.

 

 

References

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Ltifi, Afifa. (June 2020) “Black Tunisians and the Pitfalls of Bourguiba’s Homogenization. POMEPS Studies 40 Africa and the Middle East: Beyond the Divideshttps://pomeps.org/Black-tunisians-and-the-pitfalls-of-bourguibas-homogenization-project

Marks, Monica. (March 21, 2023) “Tunisia’s President Gives Life to a Zionism Conspiracy Theory.” New Lines Magazine. https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/tunisias-president-gives-life-to-a-zionism-conspiracy-theory/

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[1] Its co-founder, Sofiene Ben Sghaier calls the party the “New Tunisian Nationalist Party,” purporting to be reviving a party that was founded in 1937, along with a newspaper titled Al Kawmiyya Attounissiyya (Tunisian Nationalism).

Al Fikr, Al Qalb, Al Rouh wal Qawmiyya Attunisiyya” (“The Thinking, the Heart, the Spirit and Tunisian Nationalism”), Tunisian Nationalist Party Facebook page, August 18, 2023: https://fb.watch/myggOc3rD3/.

[2] Tunisian Nationalist Party, “Tunisian nationalism, eradicating the corruption of Black Africans by Hamuda Pasha in 1800,” December 9, 2022. https://www.tiktok.com/@9awmya.tn/video/7175191924901498117

[3] Tunisian Nationalist Party Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100090437133218

[4] “Tunisian Nationalist Party statement: Europe! Get your Hands Off Tunisia,” March 17, 2023. https://www.tnp.tn/بيان-الحزب-القومي-التونسي-أوروبا-إرفع/