TIMEP: Could you give us an overview of the population composition in Tunisia?
Houda Mzioudet: Tunisia is the smallest North African country with 12 million people. It is mostly very homogeneous: the population is 99 percent Muslim and most are of Arab and Berber descent. During its first post-independence presidency under Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia adopted the notion of Tunisianness. All ethnic, racial, and religious differences were molded into this Tunisian identity, which can sound very idealistic yet vague at the same time. In a way, he wanted to craft the Tunisian identity in his own view of “one Tunisian nation.” Therefore Tunisians would identify more with this Tunisian Arab Islamic identity. The notion of being racially different was eliminated, especially under French colonization, which added a layer of erasing any racial categorization.
Tunisia has adopted an erasure of racial categorization for fear of it threatening its concept of national unity at the time. Bourguiba shaped the Tunisian identity focused on the Arab Muslim and Mediterranean aspects of its identity. Being the only country in Africa that does not have any borders with any Sub-Saharan African country, Tunisia was in some ways cut off from its African milieu, thus de-Africanized. It only did acknowledge this aspect of its identity because Bourguiba was one of the founders of the African Union, and so its connection to Africa was extremely thin. Unlike other forms of nationalism that spurred from colonization, Tunisian nationalism was not based on a specific, fixed perception of nationalism of being 100% Arab, 100% Berber, or 100% Mediterranean. It was something that was crafted out of the mix of all of these things, which made Tunisians feel that their homogeneity was their strength.
TIMEP: A month ago, Kais Saied’s anti-immigrant statements unleashed a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiment in the country. Is this sentiment new? How do you believe things got to this point?
HM: Kais Saied’s rhetoric last month was a big shock for all of us, including myself, not because of the pervasive anti-blackness or anti-immigration sentiments, but for the blunt manner it was expressed in. Saied’s use of the “Great Replacement” theory made things worse, making Tunisia probably the first Arab country to embrace this openly fascist far right rhetoric.
Up until two years ago, Tunisia was considered a role model for progressiveness; it was perceived as the only democracy in the Arab world. As Tunisia openly embraces such far right, fascist rhetoric, there will be reverberations across the region and other countries may begin embracing similar rhetoric. It is something that is very disturbing and troubling.
The least shocking thing in Saied’s statement however was the anti-black racism, because it had been lurking behind this image of Tunisian progressiveness, somehow exempt from sectarian, racial, and ethnic divisions that are pervasive in other Arab countries. So, in some ways, it has lifted that veil of pretense that Tunisians have always had.
I think it begs the question for research in the future to look at the Tunisian identity and how it has been crafted in such a manner that its Africanness has been totally diluted.
The concept of Tunisia being a diverse country is new to some, and though there is a celebration of diversity, diversity in itself is not thought of as something enriching. Saied’s statement on black African immigrants begs the question of why these people are perceived as external enemies, when historically, Tunisia has been a melting pot of civilizations from the Phoenicians all the way to the Arabs. This is something that I’m having a hard time to understand. I think it begs the question for research in the future to look at the Tunisian identity and how it has been crafted in such a manner that its Africanness has been totally diluted. As a result of this dilution, the West, especially Europe, sees Tunisia as being this African country that is closer to the notion of whiteness, rather than it being quintessentially African in the ethnic or racial sense. After Saied’s statement, many now realize that this is the anti-black, racist reality of Tunisia.
TIMEP: How would you describe the response to what happened these last few weeks?
HM: Society is totally divided into two different camps right now, which has never happened to this extent in Tunisian modern history. A majority of the population—and I’m saying this with a lot of reservation because I cannot quantify—has more racist tendencies than others. At the same time, the average Tunisian totally denies any anti-black racism.
You have a camp that totally denies racism and also counter-attacks and accuses the other camp of being totally disconnected with reality on the ground. Saied does what other populist leaders have done in Brazil or Hungary: he divides the nation into the “good ones” and the “bad ones.” His rhetoric is something that not only exacerbates the anti-immigrant feelings among Tunisians, but also exacerbates racial anxiety that a lot of non-black Tunisians have had regarding the increase in the number of black Africans in their country. For them, seeing so many black Africans in Tunisia’s largest cities, whether in Sfax or in Tunis, makes them feel anxious about being “invaded by Africans.” And they try to drive away accusations of being anti-black racists and xenophobic by saying that they are defending Tunisian national sovereignty.
It is definitely a moment of reckoning for all Tunisians. We need to look in the mirror and face something that looks very ugly. Those defending Tunisia’s sovereignty through this anti-immigration feeling represent the majority of Tunisians unfortunately. They simply are unable to understand what they consider as a disproportionate reaction from people in and outside the country to the president’s disturbing statement.
TIMEP: Are there any laws that protect people from racial discrimination in Tunisia?
HM: After 2011, there was a lot of work done by the Tunisian civil society in upholding human rights that had been abused during the Ben Ali and Bourguiba eras.
The first awakening that happened in Tunisian civil society in 2011 is that of black Tunisians who became more visible during the protests. For the first time, you had black Tunisian activists lobbying for the criminalization of discrimination. It was a struggle in the beginning; the denial of racism has always been part of how the Tunisian identity was perceived, with any racial component of being Tunisian discarded. Black Tunisian activists were on their own at first, but fortunately, non-black Tunisians joined our cause of forcing legislators to criminalize racial discrimination and finally admitting to it as being something real and not imported. That was made possible because of the irony of Tunisia being one of the founding members of the Organization of the African Union, but also because Tunisia was one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and Racism in 1967, way before many other countries did so in the region.
Racial discrimination was finally acknowledged as the by-product of how dictatorships were able to suppress black minorities—especially black Tunisians but also Sub-Saharan African migrants.
Law 50 was passed in 2018 and that was a big judicial, legislative, and social success. It was also a first, not only in Tunisia but in the MENA region as a whole. This shows how central the role of the Tunisian civil society was in the country’s democratization. This law was also part of the transitional justice process, in which racial discrimination was finally acknowledged as the by-product of how dictatorships were able to suppress black minorities—especially black Tunisians but also Sub-Saharan African migrants.
After Saied’s coup in July 2021, Law 50 became a source of problems and debates, especially with the Tunisian Nationalist Party that had been intent on dismantling it. For them, the law is actually a big threat to their own rhetoric of defending what they call sovereignty by kicking out Sub-Saharan Africans who they accused of trying to colonize the country.
I think that the law was, in some ways, a form of protection against this anti-black and anti-immigration feeling that was brewing. I don’t know for sure whether the law is truly in danger of being rescinded, especially with Kais Saied’s recent actions and statements. But I hope that it will not be rolled back because of Tunisia’s international commitments to the UN and the international community.
TIMEP: What do you believe the Tunisian authorities, international organizations, and the international community at large should be doing to tackle the current anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiment and policies in place?
HM: Things look very bleak for the Tunisian civil society, because all activists run the risk of being criminalized by the president and his supporters and accused of being foreign agents. The UN is the only agency that has been spared for now. There were a few calls for imposing some sanctions on the Tunisian regime, which I don’t personally believe would result in any conclusive results; it proved to be counterproductive with leaders in the region, such as with former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. The Tunisian presidency needs to be pushed to hold into account its commitments to human rights and its obligations to the international conventions it has signed. Saied backtracked on some of his statements a week after he made them following the African Union’s harsh statement and a visit from a head from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). I don’t expect him to make any amends about his racist statements, yet this shows that Tunisians and the international community were able to put some pressure when it comes to human rights.
Saied is in a very tough position right now: there is pressure from the international community to respect human rights on the one hand, while Italy is pressuring him to slow the waves of immigrants crossing the Mediterranean in exchange of interceding between the Tunisian regime and the IMF to receive the needed fund. There is also pressure from the street and from his supporters, who do not want him to cede to international pressure. He is in a tough position and his desperation is something to worry about. I don’t like the wait and see strategy—we have already done this for the last couple of years—but at this point, time will tell. The international community should continue to pressure him when it comes to human rights.
Houda Mzioudet is an academic researcher who has covered the Arab uprisings with international news outlets. Her research work focuses on transitional justice, border dynamics in North Africa, civil society activism, intersectionality, black identities in the MENA region, gender and media, and migration and diaspora identities.