Tunisia’s Crisis Amidst Denial of Anti-Black Racism in the Maghreb

8 May, 2023

Opinions published in The Markaz Review reflect the perspective of their authors
and do not necessarily represent TMR.


Sarah Ben Hamadi


I grew up in a country that was constantly described as a “welcoming land ” and “land of tolerance.” Yet in recent weeks, Tunisia has been at the center of a controversy around anti-migrant racism. What changed?

How terrible were these images of sub-Saharans in front of their embassies seeking to return to their countries as soon as possible. President Kais Saïed’s words on February 21 sent shock waves throughout the country and beyond. Referring to a problem of migration flows, in a surprising speech the head of state pointed to the demographic danger of sub-Saharan immigration as a threat to Tunisian identity. Saïed spoke of “hordes of illegal migrants” whose presence in Tunisia would be a source of “violence, crime and unacceptable acts,” while insisting on the need to “quickly put an end” to this immigration.

These words have awakened a monster, that of latent racism, which is not limited to Tunisia, but present across North Africa.

I had to read the presidential statement three times to realize that I was not dreaming.  I found it hard to accept, and I was not the only one. A large demonstration denouncing these remarks and supporting migrants was quickly organized in Tunis by citizens and several organizations of civil society including the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) and the Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT). Right after the mass protest, several militant anti-racism organizations formed an anti-fascist coalition, andseveral universities, where many sub-Saharan students study, issued statements of support.

But if this reaction of solidarity is commendable, a segment of the population has found refuge in Saïed’s pronouncement; and as a result, sub-Saharan immigrants have had to leave their homes and have suffered violence. Others camped out in front of the headquarters of their countries’ embassies or the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) while waiting to be evacuated. For several days, the debate on social media became heated, and sometimes difficult to bear. Whether we like it or not, the president’s speech against African migrants has given legitimacy to a hateful discourse, already present in society.

Aware of the uneasiness created, the authorities tried to make up for it; Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Ammar multiplied media interventions to reassure Tunisians that that the statements had been misinterpreted. On March 6, the presidency of the republic announced a series of measures for sub-Saharan students and migrants to improve their situation and facilitate voluntary return operations for those who wished to go home. A toll-free number was also made available to them by the authorities to report any violations. Two days later, President Saïed welcomed to Tunis his Guinea-Bissau counterpart, Umaro Mokhtar Sissoco Embaló, and told him that the Africans present in Tunisia were “brothers,” that the objective of his speech was to ensure respect for “Tunisian legality concerning foreigners.” “I am African and proud of it” he insisted.

Josiane, a 36-year-old Ivorian I spoke to, has been living in Tunisia for almost four years and works as a housekeeper. She has attempted harga, the clandestine crossing of the Mediterranean, twice without success. “I am saving up for a new attempt,” she explains. She is waiting for her husband who will join her in Tunisia before trying again. “There are many people who have helped us here, not everyone is racist, we know that,” she says, as if to reassure me following the reaction of some of my fellow citizens.

Josiane’s case is not an exception. Far from it. Most sub-Saharan migrants do not seek to settle in Tunisia, viewing it merely as a pitstop on their journey to Europe — a stopover that sometimes lasts for years, since Tunisia acts as a border guard for the old continent.

Since 2011, the crisis in Libya has reinforced migratory flows to Tunisia. According to an article in Le Monde last month, “Tunisia has become the first country of departure of boats, ahead of Libya,” and arrivals in Italy could exceed the record figure of 180,000 reached in 2016. Moreover, Italy’s PM, Giorgia Meloni, wary of waves of migration to her country, has continued to multiply statements to support Tunisia. At a European summit in March, Emmanuel Macron called in turn to “act together” at the European level, to help Tunisia enforce a “immigration control.”


Systemic Racism in Tunisia Hasn’t Gone Away by Khawla Ksiksi


It is all very well to relativize and qualify the question, to evoke these migratory problems as a trigger for polemics, but there is indeed anti-black racism in Tunisia, and it would be naïve to say that racism did not exist before. Anti-black racism in North Africa is rooted in society, it just isn’t talked about.

But all we have to do is call to mind a few terms with which people of color are designated in the Tunisian dialect to realize the obvious: “kahlouche” is a pejorative term comparable to the word “nigger” or “black”; and “oussif” is a synonym for the word “slave.” These names are so deeply rooted in the popular language that some people do not even see the racist connotation.

In his article “Négrophobie, les damnés du Maghreb” published in the magazine Orient XXI in August 2020, essayist Rafik Chekkat articulated the situation clearly: “Maghreb societies have recently become lands of transit and immigration, changing the way they think and talk about race and racism. The vocabulary used today about exiles from Black Africa is very similar to that used in France about the Roma: welfare recipients, parasites, delinquents, sorcerers, dirty and disease-carrying… Accused, moreover, of stealing the work of nationals, they are at once portrayed as living on begging and social assistance (almost non-existent), and as fierce competitors in the job market. The term ‘African’ has come to refer to the continent’s blacks, as if North Africa were not really located there.”

If Tunisia has given its name to Africa (Ifrikiya is the name used in antiquity), most Tunisians define themselves as Arab, Mediterranean and Maghrebi — rarely as African. Why this rejection of Africanness in North African countries? Why does the notion of “Afro-Arabicity” not exist in the Maghreb? The debate deserves to take place. According to the Tunisian historian Salah Trabelsi, this rejection of Africanness in the Maghreb is explained by an ideological stock in all countries: “Whether they are native or not, Blacks in the Maghreb are the subject of double discrimination and are discredited [as citizens],” he wrote in Le Monde.

And yet, Tunisia passed a law against racial discrimination in 2018. A first in the Arab and Muslim world, the law criminalizes racist remarks, incitement to hatred, racist threats, dissemination, and apology of racism as well as “the creation” or “participation in an organization clearly and repeatedly supporting discrimination and provides for offenses punishable by one to three years in prison and a fine of up to 3,000 dinars (1,000 euros).

But is it enough?

Not when racism is embedded in society. Sadly, anti-black racism has always existed in the Maghreb, but it was rarely addressed. We were just in denial, and the fallout after Saïed’s ugly speech has helped to expose Tunisia’s shared reality.

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