The fight against anti-black racism in the Maghreb

7 min read
08 March, 2023

Denied, belittled, or satirised, racism in the Maghreb for decades seemed to only be seen and felt by black citizens and migrants, as states and the majority of the population looked at ‘anti-blackness’ as a foreign issue in their societies.

Recent comments by Tunisian President Kais Saied, however, highlight just how pervasive the issue is, both within wider society and contemporary politics in North Africa.

“The presence of hordes of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa is part of a criminal enterprise aimed at changing the demographic composition of the country,” Saied said on 21 February.

Amid the absence of official data, black communities in the Maghreb are estimated to represent more than 10% of the population in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. However, their presence in politics and the media is little to none.

"We are not racist. We just want Morocco to stay Moroccan. We don't want black people to replace us, (...) change the social makeup, and start claiming Morocco as theirs"

"The worst negrophobia, I suffered it in the Maghreb. Don't call me ‘khoya’ (brother) I know you're racist. And no n**** will forget the Arabs were owners of slaves,” sang the Franco-Congolese rapper Youssoupha in a 2012 rap battle with the Franco-Algerian rapper Médine.

Youssoupha and Médine’s rap battle ‘Blockkk identitaire’ was an unprecedented artistic expression of the little-spoken-about reality of anti-blackness and the legacy of slavery in Maghreb countries. 

In the same year, the Moroccan government denied an application to form an association to combat anti-black racism by claiming that the concept of race does not apply to Moroccan society so racism could not exist there.

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Nevertheless, being called ‘Abda’ (slave), mocked with a monkey voice, or asked ‘where are you really from’, is a daily routine that Btissam, a black Moroccan, has to endure.

“I try to face it with humour because people think you are overreacting if you say they are racist,” Btissam told The New Arab.

The Mnemty association, which has been fighting against racism in Tunisia since 2013, says that denial and a lack of accountability for the region’s history of slavery often fuel the Maghreb’s problems with racism.

Slavery and anti-blackness in the Maghreb

“I know their behaviours because my grandfather used to buy and sell them,” a Tunisian man expressed angrily in a recent viral video justifying his stance on Kais Saied’s anti-migrant comments.

Across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, domestic household slavery has dominated for centuries. Enslaved black Africans were exploited as domestic servants, concubines, and porters, and even as elite monarchy guards under Morocco’s Moulay Ismail reign (1672-1727). 

Walking in the medina of Tunis and its suburbs, you are often confronted with the country’s dark history of slavery.

A plaque reading ‘Rue des Négres’ bears witness to the thousands of black Africans who were traded as property in the city’s souk.

A man holding a sign that says Black Lives Matter during a demonstration in Tunis to protest against racism and against President Saied's latest comments. [Getty]

Tunisia was the first country in the region to abolish slavery, outlawing the practice in 1846, 19 years before the United States. However, until today, many of the descendants of those who were enslaved still bear the name ‘Atiq’ or ‘Chouchane’ (saved or liberated by) as part of their last name.

Meanwhile, in Morocco, Arabs and Berbers were heavily involved in the trans-Sahara slave trade for thirteen centuries. 

It wasn’t until 1925, under the French protectorate, that Morocco introduced a law explicitly prohibiting slavery in Morocco, and all clauses recognising servitude were removed from the personal matters code.

However, well into the 20th century, owning slaves in Morocco continued to be a sign of prestige. 

The feminist Moroccan scholar, Fatima Mernissi, reported that enslaved Africans were brought into homes as concubines and servants as recently as the 1950s.

"The recent presence of an increasing number of African migrants has unveiled the persistent complex of 'anti-Africaness' in the region"

“In the 17th century, within parts of the Sahara - almost all of Mauritania and northward to southern Morocco - a caste-like racial hierarchy emerged as the dominant form of sociopolitical organisation,” writes Professor Stephen. J.King from Georgetown University in his research.

"At the top of the hierarchy, were the Beydannes (The Whites) led by white Arab warrior tribes and their associated white Berber clerical tribes," he added.

Researchers also say that ruling classes in the region, namely in Morocco, linked ‘whiteness’ to legitimacy, politics, and freedom. This dark part of the region’s history is not included in most of the education curriculums in Maghreb countries.

“They (Maghrebians) acted as they are not Africans,” explained Moroccan researcher Shawky Al Hamel in his investigation ‘The Legacy of Slavery and Racism in Morocco’.

The recent presence of an increasing number of African migrants has unveiled the persistent complex of ‘anti-Africaness’ in the region.

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'Make Morocco great again'

‘Moroccans against nationalising Africans in Morocco’, reads the name of a Facebook group with more than 12,000 members. The background picture of the group is a red flag with a yellow eight-pointed star, a flag largely used by the Moorish nationalist movement in Morocco - a movement that wants to ‘make Morocco great again’.

“We are not racist. We just want Morocco to stay Moroccan. We don’t want black people to replace us, (...) change the social makeup, and start claiming Morocco as theirs,” an active member of the group told The New Arab

The words of the group’s members are similar to those of President Kais Saied and French far-right politician Eric Zemmour, with both echoing the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory.

It is a thesis rooted in 20th-century French ethnic nationalism that believes that non-white immigrants could eventually displace native-born white Europeans and change the demography of the country.

Citizens of the Ivory Coast gather the required paperwork from the Ivory Coast's Embassy in Tunis and head to Tunis Airport to go back to their country after Tunisian President Kais Saied called for ending migration from sub-Saharan Africa. [Getty]

Despite being residents of the African continent themselves, Maghrebian anti-migrant ‘activists’ continue to see black Africans as the ‘other’, often reinforcing the 17th-century race hierarchy to prove their superiority.

Many ‘anti-migrant’ groups on Facebook have also launched a campaign titled ‘We are all against Moroccan women marrying Africans’, calling on Moroccan women not to marry black migrants to preserve the Moroccan ‘social makeup’.

Despite sounding like a radical view exclusive to Facebook pages, opposition to marrying black Africans is common among Maghrebian families.

“Your children will be black with harsh hair. If you have a daughter no one will marry her,” is how the mother of Nadia, an Algerian woman, tried to convince her not to marry her black Algerian husband.

“Until today, many members of my family still look at my beautiful two children as some unfortunate creatures,” Nadia told TNA.

"Activists say progress has to be made in recognising the region's black population and acknowledging the Maghreb's complex status as both oppressor and oppressed"

In his fictional book ‘Marriage de plaisir’, Franco-Moroccan author Taher Ben Jelloun recounts the story of two multiracial twins in Fes, Morocco. As they grow up, the black brother’s fate is heavily influenced by his skin colour, who unlike his sibling could not pass as white.

Ziad Al-Rouine, a Tunsian activist against racism and a member of Mnemty NGO, sees the ‘Africaness’ complex in the region, namely Tunisia, as largely prompted by a neglect of the African identity of the region.  

"All successive policies and governments obliterated the dimension, identity, and African affiliation of Tunisia," Al-Rouine told the TNA.

The Tunisian constitution does not refer to the state as African. Meanwhile, despite the Moroccan, Algerian, and Libyan constitutions acknowledging their ‘Africaness’, the states’ policies and media prove otherwise.

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For example, the Melilla massacre, when Moroccan and Spanish forces killed at least 23 African migrants, was widely deemed a manifestation of the persistent racism in Morocco despite years of preaching a revolutionary pan-African policy.

"They treat us worse than animals. Like we are some commodities. They negotiate our lives' prices shamelessly," a Sudanese migrant told  TNA as he recounted the death of his friends in Melilla, arguing “they would never face the same fate if they were white”.

As Maghrebian societies have shown, in recent years there has been a readiness to discuss the complexity of their Amazigh and Arab heritage.

Activists say similar progress has to be made in recognising the region’s black population and acknowledging the Maghreb’s complex status as both oppressor and oppressed. 

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma