Tunisia was the sole success story of the ‘Arab Spring’, freed from a dictator, and with a progressive, modern constitution. Now, it is in the grip of a new, seemingly even worse, dictator, who has now – perhaps thanks to promises of cash from Italy’s fascist government – embarked on a programme of ethnic cleansing.
The insane and openly racist claims of Tunisia’s ‘president’ Kais Saied, along with his calls for Tunisia’s security forces to expel all sub-Saharan African people from the country – an open programme of ethnic cleansing – have led to predictable outbreaks of violence against men, women and children.
The governments of Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali and Guinea have already been forced to begin emergency evacuation flights to help people escape extreme violence and prejudice fuelled by Saied’s demands.
We feel we must note that actual support for Saied is extraordinarily low in Tunisia, and it is likely that the majority of Tunisian people have largely ignored his statements. Equally, some have actively resisted them, staging marches and protests against his comments and demands in towns and cities across the country.
But Saied’s statements – made in the wake of a visit by members of Italy’s fascist coalition government which hopes to pay African states to prevent people leaving to travel to Italy (it is illegal to prevent people leaving your country if they have committed no crime, and Tunisia is one of the major departure points for people hoping to reach Italy) – including that there is a ‘conspiracy’ to ‘fill Tunisia’ with sub-Saharan African people, and ‘change our genetic make-up’ (there is not), as well as that sub-Saharan Africans are behind a crime-wave in Tunisia (they are not, not least because there is no crime-wave in Tunisia), and that Tunisia is an ‘Arab Muslim state’ (it is not, and Saied actually stated this himself in Brussels at the EU-AU summit on 17 February 2022) have certainly sparked a response from some Tunisian people.
He instructed the country’s security forces to take ‘emergency measures’ to remove sub-Saharan African men, women and children from Tunisia, and in the days since, thousands have lost their jobs, and been beaten and chased from their homes. This of course includes – the vast majority, in fact – people who have every legal right to stay in Tunisia, and paperwork to prove it.
Tunisian police have arrested dozens of people they claim are ‘illegal immigrants’ which at this point appears to simply mean ‘people who have darker skin than us’. We should note that people travelling through Tunisia to reach a destination in which they wish to apply for asylum are also, even if undocumented, not ‘illegal’.
And the police’s ‘enthusiasm’ for ethnic cleansing and victimisation of people from further south than them has been matched by parts of the Tunisian civilian population, who have joined in delivering violence – in some cases with devastating consequences – against people who have committed absolutely no wrongdoing.
Natacha, a 27-year-old from Senegal, has been forced to stay outside the IOM office in Tunis, after her landlord beat her and forced her from the home she rented from him in the Ariana area of the Tunisian capital.
‘They broke into our house at midnight and dragged us out, they piled our belongings and burnt them before our eyes.
‘They beat me up so badly that I suffered a miscarriage.’
Emmanuel, from Nigeria, said:
‘I fled because of violence in south-eastern Nigeria. We did not come here because things are better; we escaped civil unrest.
‘I went to Libya first, but there I had to escape bombing, and came here. I was kicked out of my home the night after the president’s comment. My landlord took my rent money, then threw me into the street.’
Osman, from Sierra Leone, said:
‘They stole my phone and I cannot even reach out to my family. I do not know if they are alive and they do not know if I am. People beat me with sticks as I was thrown out of my home.’
Tunisia was not always like this, and nor did it ever have to be so. Having removed the dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (relatively) peacefully, sparking what became known s the ‘Arab Spring’ in the process, the country embarked on a new route, beginning not only a parliamentary democratic system but also producing a constitution internationally-praised for its guarantees of personal, social and religious freedom, as well as its dedication to gender equality.
What went ‘wrong’ – though there is an argument to say that nothing really did – is a story too long to tell in detail here (though we have told parts of it in other places) but can be summarised very concisely as ‘political stalemate’ with ‘Liberal’ parties cancelling out the ‘Islamic’ and popular Ennahda party (both ‘Liberal’ and ‘Islamic’ should be read here very advisedly: Ennahda is not a fundamentalist organisation, and neither are all Tunisia’s ‘Liberals’ particularly ‘liberal’).
Though many observers – including us – were confident that the seeming lack of ‘progress’ was merely a probably short-lived stage in Tunisia’s new and still developing political situation, others were less optimistic.
Into this stand-off stepped Kais Saied, a man who has turned out to be less the ‘technocratic Liberal’ he claimed, than an increasingly dangerous, unpleasant and repressive dictator.
Saied seized control of Tunisia in July 2021, when he suspended the country’s parliament with promises to ‘break the deadlock’ and ‘get things done’ for ‘Tunisia’. He has been ruling by presidential decree since then.
Last year, he dissolved parliament, and disbanded both the country’s electoral commission and supreme judicial council, as well as firing every judge who disagreed with him.
He has repeatedly arrested political opponents (many several times) and on Monday 25 July last year replaced the Tunisian constitution with a document he wrote handing himself wide-reaching new powers.
He had originally employed his former university law lecturer, the 83-year-old Sadeq Belaid, to write the document. He said of the proposal Saied put to the Tunisian people:
‘This new version is dangerous and does not at all not resemble the first draft proposed by the constitution committee.
‘It contains chapters that could pave the way for a disgraceful dictatorial regime, and it is our duty to strongly and truthfully announce that the constitution that was officially published and presented for referendum is not relevant to the constitution we prepared and sent to the president.’
Tunisia’s political parties – many of whom absolutely hate one another – united to ask the Tunisian people to boycott the referendum on the constitution. Fewer than 25 per cent of people voted, and in total 23 per cent of those allowed to vote, voted ‘yes’, meaning 77 per cent of people did not support the constitution. Saied declared this a ‘victory’ and vowed to enact the new ‘system’.
He promised to reopen (a now powerless) parliament, and held elections on 17 December 2022. Once again, the major political parties, all of which had been banned from running candidates (Saied claims this is because parliament should contain politicians, but not political parties) asked the Tunisian population not to vote, and in many ‘constituencies’ candidates ran unopposed. In several, no candidate ran.
In the event, just 11.2 per cent of people voted, the second-lowest turn-out in any national election held in any country in human history. Even the Libyan election held during the second Libyan Civil War recorded a higher turn-out than the Tunisian ‘election’ of 2022. Saied, of course, declared the election had been a success, and enacted a new, toothless, parliament.
Even despite all of this clear megalomania and general insanity, the step to ethnically-cleanse Tunisia has come as something of a surprise.
But one major reason might be that Saied, as a not particularly talented politician, has also overseen an almost unbelievable economic collapse (in fairness, though he does not deserve fairness, he has not been helped by a global inflation crisis or the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, as Tunisia is an importer of grain).
And despite claiming he wants no ‘outside interference’ in ‘Tunisian affairs’ (by which he means reasonable criticism of imposing a constitution three quarters of the population does not want, and ruling as an autocrat) the country’s dire situation may have led him to see the Italian fascist government’s offer of cash to prevent people leaving Tunisia for Italy as too good an opportunity to refuse.
In any case, Tunisia, which was by some distance the most successful of the North African and Arab peninsula states to rise against dictators in 2010-11, is, 12 years later, in the grip of a dictator who is carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing.