Tunisia Symbol Of Anti-Black Racism In The Maghreb
Kaïs Saïed's statements on February 23, 2023, have caused a lot of ink to flow. In a country already prone to anti-black racism, the President claimed that a "criminal plan" aimed through “successive waves of irregular migration" to "change the demographic structure of Tunisia ... to make it a uniquely African country and not a member of the Arab and Muslim communities.”According to him, “violence and crimes” throughout the country are also the work of sub-Saharan migrants. Since this statement, Tunisia has become the tip of the iceberg of anti-black racism, a real scourge in the Maghreb. In this article are analyzed the consequences of Kaïs Saïed's remarks and the reasons that continue to perpetuate racism in North Africa.
Racism in the Maghreb: generalities of a phenomenon
"Hmar" (donkey), "Kelb" (dog), "Assouqqi" (black), to name but a few, have become Arab or Berber terms, now well assimilated by black Africans living in the countries of North Africa, and the Maghreb in particular. Just the term "African" attributed exclusively to sub-Saharans by the Maghreb populations, speaks volumes about the racist myth perpetuated in this Arab-Muslim society. “I am not racist, I even have African friends,” some people say. The very fact that “Africanness” refers only to black Africans in the Maghreb is a problem that models the self-exclusion of Maghrebins from the African continent. For some, even if their country plays in the African Cup of Nations and all other African competitions, and is a member of the African Union with a key role in the founding act of the organization (like Habib Bourguiba and Tunisia), the identity they claim is quite different: “I am not African, but Maghrebin,” you can hear even from some. “I think we need to bring geography teachers to the Maghreb. It is not because we are in the north, west or east, that we are not from Africa,” had joked President Umaro Sissoco Embalo visiting Tunisia, after the polemical statement of President Kaïs Saïed. Anti-black racism is sociologically well rooted in North African countries. Even if a good part of the population still fights against this stigmatization of black Africans, the fact is that it remains present and insufficiently fought by the authorities themselves in the Maghreb. Kaïs Saïed's remarks had at least the merit of bringing out more of what was on people's hearts and of highlighting this scourge.
The consequences of President Kaïs Saïed's words
Kaïs Saïed's clearly anti-migrant and anti-racist speech is an admission. In a country where blacks were already victims of institutionalized stigmatization and aggression, often with messages such as “go home,” the president was already aware of what this speech could lead to. In the days following his words, many Africans could not leave their homes for fear of being arrested or assaulted by crazed racists who were energized by the President's words and knew that their actions against black people would go unpunished. In testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch, the ordeal of Africans is palpable.
- “A 20-year-old Malian international trade student has been in Tunisia since September 2020. On March 1, as he was returning home from his first day of internship in central Tunis, a man pulled out a razor blade and tried to slash him, shouting racist slurs and telling him to return to "his" country. The student tried to defend himself but still ended up with cuts on his neck and chest. He went to a police station with the dean of his school - who acted as an interpreter - to report the assault. The police asked him what had happened, gave him a report in Arabic that contained no relevant information, and told him to go to the hospital, he said. Between February 21 and March 1, he had only left his dormitory once to run errands because he felt unsafe.”
- “An Ivorian mother of 5-month-old twins has been in Tunisia since 2017 and holds a valid residence permit. In February, she had opened a beauty salon in the Sidi Amor district, north of the capital. She explained that the owner, who had rented the salon to her, later reneged on their agreement, saying that the police had said that "black people cannot own businesses.” The next morning, February 24, she found the owner with six other men in the salon, destroying equipment and furniture with an ax. On February 25, her landlord evicted her from her apartment in Raoued, telling her to "go back to [her] country." She and her children have since relied on friends for shelter, staying indoors as much as possible out of fear. She also described discrimination in grocery stores, where she said shopkeepers arbitrarily raised the prices of basic goods, such as rice, when she arrived at the checkout.”
Several Tunisian human rights organizations have condemned the Tunisian president's remarks. Protests days were even organized against the aggressions and abuses committed against the 24,000 sub-Saharan immigrants in Tunisia. While the government and President Kaïs Saïed sought to rectify the situation in a statement outlining a series of reforms to calm the situation, the damage had already been done and continues. The government announced only one arrest for the attacks, which did not deter the racists. Tunisia is now the symbol of racism in North Africa.
Factors perpetuating anti-racism in the Maghreb
Several factors have perpetuated and even reinforced racism in the Maghreb over time. First, there is the historical factor. The black slave trade began with the Arab slave traders in the seventh century. This trade has become the basis of a sociological perception for the Arabs that has no reason to change. Then there is the political factor, a consequence of the historical factor. Despite political reforms in Tunisia, for example, aimed at repressing the stigmatization of blacks, the phenomenon has remained in the absence of rigorous law enforcement. Today, many Maghrebin find it difficult to get out of this racial superiority complex towards blacks. This is the basis of their self-exclusion from Africa. For them, “Africa” refers exclusively to “Black”, “slave”, and therefore cannot be their continent. Sywar Ayachi, a Tunisian student at the University of Marmara in Türkiye, explained further the causes and manifestations of anti-black racism in Tunisia, through a long testimony.
"Although Tunisia is considered a pioneer in the abolition of slavery in the world, and was the first Islamic and Arab country to abolish slavery during the reign of Ahmed Bey by issuing an ordinance in 1846, racism still remains. I know people who still see blacks as slaves, they even call them with derogatory terms like "Wsif" which means black, "Matouk" and "Atik" which mean "was a slave before and freed". If you are black in Tunisia, you hear these words daily both in jest and as a direct act of racism. The reason, I believe, is the history of slavery in Tunisia, which is still told by Tunisians.
"If they want to scare a child, they will use the name of a black person they know"
"I'll give you an example from my environment. I come from the south of Tunisia where most black people reside, especially in the southeastern (Gabes, Medenine, Tataouine) and southwestern (Tozeur, Kebili) governorates. In elementary school, my teacher was black and, surprisingly, we shared the same surname. I used to show my classmates that our teacher was a member of my family, but my grandfather told me a different story that my teacher's ancestors were slaves in our family and when they were freed, they received our family name. Also, for those who did not receive the surname of their owner, they were given the surname of "Chouchen" which means black "Matouk" and "Atik" which means was a slave.
"In addition, many still believe in white supremacy, as they rely on outdated beliefs such as that blacks are known for violence and hatred, which I see in the daily jokes of Tunisians. For example, if they want to scare a child, they will use the name of a black person they know. They also joke about having a daughter married to a black man, which unfortunately has a real derogatory meaning here. I believe that all of these acts have contributed to the creation of the personality of the racist Tunisian and that they are the main reason for racist behavior. This contributed to the exclusion of blacks from high-level professions and jobs and their absence from the official scene in the history of the modern state, until 2020 when Kamal Dagich, a black politician, held the position of Minister of Sports and Youth."
Human Rights Watch. “Tunisie : La violence raciste cible les migrants et réfugiés noirs,” March 10, 2023. https://www.hrw.org/fr/news/2023/03/10/tunisie-la-violence-raciste-cible-les-migrants-et-refugies-noirs.
TV5MONDE. “Tunisie : propos racistes et théorie du grand remplacement, Kaïs Saïed accable les migrants subsahariens,” February 25, 2023. https://information.tv5monde.com/afrique/tunisie-propos-racistes-et-theorie-du-grand-remplacement-kais-saied-accable-les-migrants