Tunis, Tunisia – In February, Tunisian President Kais Saied warned his country of a plan to change Tunisia’s “demographic make-up”, to turn it into “just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations any more”.
As part of this plan, “hordes of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa” had travelled to Tunisia, bringing “all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails”.
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The dubious warning, which has been widely criticised and dubbed racist by human rights groups as well as by regional and international bodies, gave official approval to a mentality that has been spreading through the North African country over recent years.
It led to round-ups of Black sub-Saharan Africans, their eviction from rented properties, and African countries mobilising to repatriate their citizens.
And now, with reports of mobs forcing their way into the homes of Black migrants and refugees, attacking occupants with fists, clubs and machetes, Tunisia’s own native black population, long used to the bigotry that exists in many parts of their own society, are braced for the assault.
Around 10 to 15 percent of Tunisia’s own population is Black, according to the anti-racism campaign group, Mnemty. Some are descended from the native Amazigh population of North Africa, while the ancestors of others migrated here from nearby states, and others were brought to Tunisia as part of the country’s participation in the slave trade.
According to Mnemty, conditions have deteriorated since President Saied’s February broadside.
“It’s got worse, much worse,” Zied Rouin from Mnemty said. “Ever since the speech of Kais Saied, people have lost all sense of shame over their racism. If you’re racist, you’re racist, but people now feel it’s OK to announce that. There’s nothing [Black] people can do, no one they can complain to. Black people feel unprotected, while racists feel empowered. They feel they can do whatever they like.”
The impact of the speech, Rouin says, on Tunisian identity, looks to be long-lasting.
“With that speech, President Saied defined what it was to be Tunisian. That is, Arab and Muslim. Anything that differs from that [whether that’s through skin tone or religion] is suspicious and subject to question,” Rouin continued.
He leaned forward. “Let me ask you a question, do you see many Black Tunisians at events defending migrants? No. They stay away from those events. They go to pains to appear Tunisian and speak in [the Tunisian] dialect. They need to let you know they’re Tunisian before you question them,” he said.
Recent attacks upon the thousands of Black refugees and migrants in the port city of Sfax, and across Tunisia, have been as ferocious as they have been brutal.
Throughout the centre of Sfax, or huddling outside the offices of the International Organization for Migration in Tunis, crowds of Black sub-Saharan Africans lie under an unremitting sun, enduring temperatures that only drop below 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) at nightfall.
In 2018, Tunisia made history by criminalising racism. It was a first, not just in North Africa, but across the Arab world. Racism, its existence long dismissed by successive governments, was at last acknowledged and its victims offered some kind of legal protection to all Black people, irrespective of the country of their birth, on Tunisian soil.
However, with no central strategy to roll it out, and without the funds to train the police in its use, its application remained piecemeal.
Now, with Black people, some bleeding, lying unprotected in the blistering summer heat, the 2018 law has arguably ceased to have any relevance, and some Tunisian nationalists are even calling for it to be repealed.
‘Racism is always there’
Huda Mzioudet left Tunisia for Toronto, Canada years ago, returning during the summer months to carry out research on ancestral Black identity in Tunisia.
She says that the situation, which was already bad, has grown worse.
“It’s just always there, in everything you do,” she says of her experience as a Black Tunisian travelling the country’s south. “What’s more, the racism is more pronounced now.”
“The [Black Tunisians] I talk to are tired. They just want this to end. I don’t know what to say. I’m growing increasingly pessimistic. This has been coming since the  revolution.”
That revolt was born of the need for jobs and social justice, but over the subsequent years, the economy has continued to tank, unemployment has remained ingrained, and bread – one of the principal rallying cries of 2011 – remains, like other staple foods the government subsidises, in short supply.
And the future is uncertain, and worrying.
“If we keeping going this way, it’s going to be like a purge,” Rouin sighed. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work. That starts with government, but society will follow … either way it will take a lot of time.”