The African Union has condemned remarks made by Tunisia’s president which it called “racialised hate speech” after he claimed there was a plot to settle sub-Saharan African migrants in the country and change its demographic composition.

Kais Saied, the authoritarian Tunisian leader, said earlier this week that his country was the victim of a “conspiracy” to distance it from its Arab and Islamic culture.

Speaking at a National Security Council meeting, he said “urgent measures” were needed to tackle illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who he accused of “violence, crimes and unacceptable practices”. 

He described those who called his views racist as liars, and accused unnamed individuals of having received money to “settle” sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia.

“We will not permit the demographic composition to be changed and I know very well what I am saying,” he said, adding that anyone present in the country legally should feel safe but that state institutions should move against those who had entered illegally.

On Friday the AU issued a statement expressing its “deep shock and concern at the form and substance of [statements] targeting fellow Africans, notwithstanding their legal status in the country”.

The Tunisian foreign ministry said it was surprised by the AU statement and rejected what it described as “baseless accusations”.

Saied’s comments have sparked a wave of criticism from civil rights groups and on social media.

The row comes amid a grinding economic crisis and an escalating crackdown on critics who accuse the president of an illegal power grab after he suspended parliament in 2021.

At least 12 opposition figures have been arrested in recent weeks, including judges, politicians, activists, businessmen and the head of a leading independent radio station. Accusations made against them range from threatening state security to being behind recent price increases.

Some had been working to forge an anti-Saied political alliance. On Saturday an anti-terrorism judge ordered that four should be held in pre-trial detention, accused of conspiring against state security.

Tunisia is facing deepening economic problems. Inflation averaged 8.3 per cent in 2022, and rating agency Fitch expects it to average 9.5 per cent this year. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent the price of imports soaring, leading to shortages of basic goods such as sugar and flour.

Meanwhile, a $1.9bn IMF loan remains stalled. “The IMF is sceptical about the capacity and willingness of Saied and his team to implement reforms,” said Hamza Meddeb, a fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center think-tank. “He doesn’t want an IMF deal and is not showing he is strongly engaged in reforms or showing an economic vision.”

The president’s invective has reportedly stoked fear among the estimated 20,000 sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia. According to social media posts and analysts, some, including legally resident students, are staying inside their homes for fear of being arrested or attacked by people inflamed by the anti-migrant rhetoric.

A group of Tunisian civil society associations announced that they had joined together to form the Antifascist Front to fight racism. The group said Saied’s anti-migrant campaign was part of an “authoritarian political march that had reached a peak in recent times through the targeting of opposition voices in politics, the media and trade unions”.

Mohamed Dhia Hammami, a researcher on Tunisia at Syracuse university, argued that Saied was “scapegoating” sub-Saharan Africans amid the economic crisis and said there were already reports of attacks against such migrants, including those present in the country legally.

The embassy of Mali in Tunisia has called on Malians in the country to be calm and vigilant and to register if they want to be repatriated.

Saied’s belief in conspiracy theories and his “reckless” accusations were contributing to an atmosphere of fear among political opponents who had to contend with “increasing uncertainty about the logic of repression”, he said.

Saied, a political novice with no party affiliation, was elected by a landslide in 2019, in what analysts saw as a rebuke to a fractious political class that had failed to address the country’s economic challenges. Until he shut down parliament in 2021 and announced that he would rule by decree, Tunisia was seen as the only successful democracy to have emerged from the 2011 Arab uprisings.

However, Saied has set about redesigning the political system to concentrate power in his own hands. A new charter shaped by the president was adopted in a referendum in July last year on a 30 per cent turnout. This reduced the powers of parliament and gave the president extensive authority over the government and judiciary.

“[Saied’s] mindset includes two things,” said Meddeb. “That there are conspiracies and traitors. He is always looking for someone or something to hold responsible for the crisis in the country.”

Source link

By Admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *