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A viral video from late February showed a man decrying the incompatibility of Black African “values” with those of Tunisians. Asked by the interviewer if he had ever met any Africans, he retorted implying he knows them well “because my grandfather used to buy and sell them.”
The video has garnered more than 600,000 views on Twitter. It’s one of many circulating in Tunisia that has, in recent weeks, brought to the fore a racism problem in the country that has coincided with an influx of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who use Tunisia as a transit point to Europe.
Some of the social media posts, shared in Arabic, English and French, have portrayed the migrants as invaders, criminals and rapists who seek to displace Tunisians. Many refer to the debunked but widely shared claim that there are 2 million sub-Saharan Africans in the country of 12 million.
The sudden rise in public expressions of racism occurred in the weeks after Tunisian President Kais Saied delivered a widely criticized tirade about undocumented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia, like other North African countries, is predominantly Arabic speaking.
On February 21, he described illegal border crossings from sub-Saharan Africa into Tunisia as a “criminal enterprise hatched at the beginning of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia” and called on security forces to expel undocumented migrants.
That caused fear and insecurity to ripple through migrant communities in the country, who say they have faced racist attacks, evictions, firings and dehumanizing treatment by the authorities. Many have camped outside the embassies of their countries or UN agencies seeking safety or flights back home. Sub-Saharan Africans make up less than 1% of Tunisia’s population.
Critics of the president say he is complicit. His actions, they say, have unleashed xenophobia and exposed the dark underbelly of anti-Black racism in the country. The controversy also demonstrates the regression of democracy and human rights in the country that sparked the Arab Spring revolts over a decade ago.
Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar scoffed at allegations of racism during an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson on Monday, calling them a “bad joke” meant to serve people “with other agendas,” without elaborating.
“Of course, nothing (is) wrong,” he said, referring to Saied’s comments. “The Tunisian government … are in the right to say what they say. There’s no excuse to give, we didn’t insult no one … We have been put in a position to explain what is already clear,” he said.
Both documented and undocumented migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa have reported a surge in violence. Several African countries, including Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea and Gabon, have helped repatriate their citizens as a result of the crackdown.
Henda Chennaoui, a coordinator at Tunisia’s Anti-Fascist Front, told CNN that Saied’s comments and racist social media posts caused a historic “shift” in the country’s discourse that would be hard to reverse. They resulted in attacks on migrants in their homes and in the streets, she said. Her organization has lent support to some of the victims and campaigned against their mistreatment.
Great Replacement theory
For many observers, Saied’s theory about a plot to change the racial makeup of the country echoes the Great Replacement theory, a popular theme in White supremacist and right-wing discourse in Europe and North America that accuses elites of using immigration to replace the native population.
“Saied’s speech injected the Great Replacement theory and racial hatred into the bloodstream of Tunisia’s political mainstream, and we are witnessing its effects,” said Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi who specializes in Tunisia.
Tunisia has long been a transit point for undocumented migrants trying to cross into Europe. The UN’s International Organization for Migration praised Tunisia’s efforts on migration in a statement to CNN, but said it was “very concerned about the latest rise in hate speeches, anti-migrant narratives and the surge in violence against migrants in the country.”
Chennaoui, of the Anti-Fascist Front, said there is racism in Tunisia “as there is in any other country,” but noted that what stands out in the country is that racism is being adopted by the highest-ranking officials “which changes everything.” That has galvanized many Tunisians to take to the streets in protest and lend a helping hand to the victims, she said.
Marks of NYU Abu Dhabi has collected testimonies from several migrants facing racism in Tunisia and has documented their plight on Twitter. She told CNN that Black Tunisians have been facing racism in their own country.
Condemnation of President Saied has been swift, including a rare rebuke from the African Union whose chairperson called the comments “racial” and “shocking.” The AU postponed a scheduled conference in Tunis to protest the president’s language.
The US State Department said that it was concerned about the Tunisian president’s rhetoric and arbitrary arrests of migrants in recent weeks. “These remarks are not in keeping with Tunisia’s long history of generosity in hosting and protecting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters last week. “And we’re disturbed by reports of violence against these very migrants.”
Asked about reports that the World Bank is suspending talks with Tunisia following Saied’s comments, the Tunisian foreign minister said the lender had postponed the meeting “because it wanted to avoid … this discussion during this useless polemic, that’s all … the programs of the World Bank are still ongoing in Tunisia.”
Some have suggested that the Tunisian president may be scapegoating Black Africans in order to deflect attention away from the controversies he has courted at home.
Saied has pushed Tunisia closer to autocracy since dismissing parliament in mid-2021 and moving to rule by decree, just a decade after protesters overthrew an autocratic regime in favor of democracy. He has amassed near-total power and described parliament as “an institution of absurdity and a state within the state,” according to Reuters.
Marks said Saied’s targeting of African migrants was linked to his “political witch hunts,” referring to the government’s crackdown on dissidents.
“Both have happened simultaneously this past month and mark a dramatic escalation of his dictatorial consolidation,” she said. “He’s imprisoning and scapegoating political opponents across the board – and racially persecuting the most vulnerable – to distract from his utter failure to deliver competent economic governance to Tunisia.”
Additional reporting by Xiaofei Xu, Kareem El Damanhoury, Bethlehem Feleke, Abbas Al Lawati and Zeena Saifi.
Saudi Arabia says it’s willing to invest in Iran after normalization deal
Significant Saudi investments in Iran could come “very quickly” following a normalization agreement the two countries signed last week, Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said at a conference in Riyadh on Wednesday. “I think there are a lot of opportunities in Iran and we provide a lot of opportunities for them as long as good will continues,” Al-Jadaan said, adding that Saudi Arabia needs regional stability to prosper economically.
- Background: Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed on Friday to reestablish diplomatic ties and reopen their embassies within two months in a deal mediated by China. The agreement comes seven years after Riyadh severed ties with Tehran in 2016, after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital following the execution of a Shi’ite cleric in Saudi Arabia.
- Why it matters: The Iran-Saudi cold war has had an impact on almost every conflict in the region. Its resolution could have equally strong repercussions that not only ripple across Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and others, but could also pull an isolated Iran out of years of economic paralysis.
Moroccan palace asks political party to stop criticizing ties with Israel
Morocco’s royal palace on Monday asked the largest Islamist party, the PJD, to stop taking aim at the country’s ties with Israel after the party rebuked the foreign minister for defending Israel at the expense of Palestinians, Reuters reported. “The general secretariat condemns the recent stand by the foreign minister in which he appears to be defending the zionist entity … at a time the Israeli occupation continues its criminal aggression against our Palestinian brothers,” the PJD said in a statement last week. The palace said that foreign policy was a prerogative of the King and it would not be “subject to blackmail.”
- Background: Morocco resumed diplomatic ties with Israel in late 2020 after a deal brokered by the Trump administration that also included Washington’s recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, a disputed territory where the Algeria-backed Polisario Front seeks to establish its own state.
- Why it matters: Renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians poses a challenge to Arab countries that have normalized ties with Israel. An opinion poll by the Arab Center Washington DC found that two-thirds of Moroccans oppose normalization with Israel. Since the resumption of ties, Morocco and Israel have signed cooperation agreements, including a defense pact.
Lebanese currency hits record low more than three years into financial crisis
The Lebanese lira hit a record low on Tuesday, trading at 100,000 lira per US dollar on the black market, the parallel market that is used for nearly all transactions in the country.
- Background: The lira’s value has been plummeting since Lebanon’s financial crisis erupted in October 2019, and has been in freefall since January 20 when it was devalued. The official exchange rate shared by the Lebanese central bank stands at 15,000 lira to the dollar, after it was adjusted for the first time in decades from 1,500 lira on January 20.
- Why it matters: The 100,000 lira is Lebanon’s highest denominated banknote. The latest plunge in the currency on Tuesday comes as a strike launched by the Association of Banks in Lebanon last month resumes across the country.
The White House announced Tuesday that Boeing has completed two deals with Saudi Arabia to manufacture up to 121 Boeing 787 Dreamliners anchor a new airline and another to expand an existing fleet. The deals are valued at nearly $37 billion and support more than 140,000 American jobs, the White House said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s daughter, Aya el-Sisi, made a rare public appearance on Sunday during the royal wedding of Princess Iman of Jordan and Jameel Thermiotis outside Amman, Jordan.
Egyptians quickly took to social media, commenting on everything from her dress and accessories to her demeanor.
The veiled woman wore a modest, silver gown, reportedly by Lamis Bridal Studio, a high-end dress maker in Cairo. Her dress was complemented with a necklace .
Many applauded el-Sissi for choosing a locally made outfit, saying they were proud of her conservative style as well as quiet and polite nature.
“I see that she is an unpretentious girl, even though she is the daughter of the head of state,” tweeted Noha Rafaat, head of the news at the state-owned Ahram newspaper. “She is simple and modest.”
“A girl like any Egyptian girl, dressed like our girls, nothing excessive,” tweeted another user, casting doubt on news reports about the high cost of her outfit.
Some, however, responded with mockery, criticizing her choice of fashion and even the way she seemingly chewed gum during the wedding.
Aya attended the ceremony with her mother, first lady Intissar Amer, and the two were seen congratulating King Abdullah II and his wife, Queen Rania, on their daughter’s special day.
Little is known about the president’s only daughter. She has three brothers and is married, according to Al Arabiya. She does not have public social media accounts, and photos of her and her brothers are rarely published.
Only their mother, Intissar – who is Sisi’s maternal cousin – attends formal events with her husband, but leads few public ventures.
The family’s secretive lifestyle stands in stark contrast to former president Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed amid mass protests in 2011.