Criticism follows Tunisia's Saied anti-African 'great replacement' comments

Criticism follows Tunisia's Saied anti-African 'great replacement' comments
Saied's recent statements were deemed "racist" and "fascist" by activists and minority groups in the country.
4 min read
22 February, 2023
"We condemn the racist speech by the Presidency that incites violence and hatred against Sub-Saharan migrants," Ziad Al-Rouine, General Coordinator of the Manamati Association against Racism in Tunisia, told The New Arab. [Getty]

Tunisia's President Kais Saied on Tuesday denounced undocumented sub-Saharan African immigration into his country, describing it as a "criminal plan" seeking to change Tunisia's demographic makeup. The comments by the Tunisian president stirred up harsh criticism from several anti-racism organisations in the country.

Speaking in a meeting with the National Security Council, Saied claimed there are unnamed parties that received massive sums of money after 2011 to settle "irregular migrants" from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia.

"These successive waves of irregular migration have an undeclared goal of considering Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation with the Arab and Islamic nations," read a press release published on the presidency's official Facebook page reiterating Saied's controversial statements.

Activists and minority groups in Tunisia quickly condemned Saied's statements, describing them as"racist" and "fascist".

"We condemn the racist speech by the Presidency that incites violence and hatred against Sub-Saharan migrants," Ziad Al-Rouine, General Coordinator of the Manamati Association against Racism in Tunisia, told The New Arab.

The Tunisian activist said that Saied's statements also violated Tunisian law, which criminalises all forms of racial discrimination.

For its part, the presidency argued, in the same press release, that Tunisia was always proud to be part of the African continent. A claim Al-Rouine rejects.

"The 2014 constitution says Tunisia is considered part of the Arab Maghreb. The 2022 constitution says the Republic of Tunisia is considered a part of the great Arab Maghreb. All successive policies and governments obliterated the dimension, identity, and African affiliation of Tunisia," said al-Rouine.

The "great replacement": Kais Saied, the Tunisian Eric Zmmour

The Tunisian president's conspiracy theory echoes the ideas of “the great replacement” ("grand remplacement" in French), 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 demographic of the country.

The term was commonly used by far-right French politician Eric Zemmour during his presidential campaign last year.

Zemmour was the first to come in support of Saied's comments.

"The Maghreb countries themselves are beginning to sound the alarm in the face of the surge in migration. Here, Tunisia wants to take urgent measures to protect its people. What are we waiting for to fight against the Great Replacement?" tweeted the far-right politician, who was convicted three times for "inciting hate".

The theory pushed by Saied and Zemmour has led to several hate crimes against the Black community over the years.

Last May, a terrorist behind the "Buffalo store shooting" in New York wrote a 180-page document filled with hateful rants about race and ties to the "great replacement", after he killed 13 people in a mainly African-American neighbourhood.

Racism in Tunisia

Despite activists' criticism, Saied's last statements were supported by several Tunisians on social media, who urged authorities to solve "the problem" of migrants in the country.

"The solution is to deport them and to tighten monitoring and verification of every person who is on the land of Tunisia without a visa and in an illegal manner, and to impose penalties on everyone who employed or sheltered or was behind their entry," commented a Facebook user under the president's statement.

Hundreds of comments from Tunisian accounts voiced similar anti-migrant sentiments, a discourse heavily promoted by mainstream media in the last weeks.

Last year, a BBC Arabic survey found that 80% of people in Tunisia believe that racial discrimination is a prevailing feature of life in the country.

The anti-black racism in Tunisia also impacts the Tunisian black community. The community represents between 10 and 15 per cent of the total population, with most residing in the country's south.

Black Tunisians remain almost wholly absent from public life and employment, including government positions and other senior roles.