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The Great Replacement Theory is making life hell for black people in Tunisia

Tunisia’s president Kais Saied embraced a Western far-right conspiracy. Beatings, stabbings, rapes and deportations of Black Africans followed.

April 21 2023, 15.32pm

The “Great Replacement Theory” - the fantasy that liberal “elites” are deliberately importing migrants to replace indigenous conservative voters - has come a long way since being coined by a French white supremacist in 2010. It has been repeatedly promoted by Tucker Carlson on his flagship show on Fox News, even after being cited in the manifestos of white supremacist mass shooters. And closer to home, it’s cropped up on the British Right - from Niel Oliver talking about  “our shared heritage, institutions, culture and way of life” being dismantled “to be ready for replacement with something else”, to the writings of Douglas Murray, whose fretting about London now being “less than 50% white British” has been slammed as a quasi-respectable and  thinly veiled version of the same racist, conspiratorial thinking. 

But of all places, it is in Tunisia - not long ago hailed for its quantum leap toward democracy as the progenitor of the Arab Spring - that another iteration of this theory has been adopted near wholesale as state doctrine

In mid-February, Tunisia's President Kais Saied launched an incendiary racial broadside into the lives of the 21,000 or so undocumented black migrants living in Tunisia. In comments uploaded to his social media pages, President Saied was heard uncritically parrotting the racist theories of the country's hitherto unknown Nationalist Party, claiming that “hordes” of  undocumented black migrants were coming to the country as part of a wider “criminal” plot to colonise Tunisia, engaging in “violence, crime and unacceptable acts" and change the country’s  "demographic composition" 

While many baulk at the notion of Saied actively subscribing to any interpretation of the Great Replacement, his racist outburst was enough for the French far right politician, Eric Zemmour, to cite the speech as evidence that, even in the Maghreb, the idea was gaining traction.  

Two months later, in one of the affluent lakeside suburbs to the north of the capital, the consequences of that speech are lying in the streets, still reeking off the morning’s tear gas. A few hours earlier, this had been one of the two makeshift camps that Tunisia’s undocumented black migrants had fled to, after the waves of violence that erupted across the country on the heels of the President’s speech.   

"The police came this morning," one Sudanese woman says, sheltering from the sun outside her embassy, "They used tear gas and they arrest many people," she adds, a few small children playing around her feet. 

Beaten, stabbed, raped

Mohamed Salah (not the footballer) speaks of how the police had raided the camp that morning, barging in in  response to reports of aggression from the migrants. "They attacked us. We were asking to be evacuated because, after Kais Saied's speech, the racism was in many places," he said.

For the undocumented black migrants living in Tunisia, some who have been here for years, Saied's speech changed everything. It was like, "flipping a switch" as one victim of the violence later termed it.

Overnight, people like them were dragged or evicted from their homes. Men were attacked with knives and machetes. Women were raped. Many lost their jobs, with employers withholding salaries, leaving countless numbers of undocumented migrants with no one to turn to and nowhere to go other than the UN offices in Tunis. 

“They take all our properties, our money. Some of us, they’re stabbing our friends, our brothers,” a refugee from Sierra Leone, who asked to remain anonymous, said. He  from outside the offices of the International Organisation for Migration, where he, along with many others, had been sleeping rough since the President’s speech. “We have nothing.” 

"You just need to be a racist"

While the scale of the violence shocked many, President's Saied's fervent embrace of a popular conspiracy theory surprised none. Since being propelled to power on the back of popular discontent within a fractious parliament and political class, Saied's time in office has all but been defined by his talk of plots and conspiracies. As the economy has continued the descent - which, twelve years ago precipitated a revolution - Saied has remodelled the constitution and oversaw a brutal crackdown on the "terrorists" and "traitors" among his political opponents. 

There’s no evidence the president directly applied the work of “great replacement theory” progenitor Renaud Camus, said Jalel Harchaoui, an Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services. But the broad tenets appear to have struck a chord. 

“You don’t need to follow Camus to subscribe to the great replacement theory. You just need to be a racist. I’ve been hearing these kinds of sentiments in Tunisia, especially in the south, for years,” he said. “However, there’s no denying that, as living standards have been squeezed as the economy’s declined, they’ve started to spike. The President just gave them legitimacy,” he said.  

Tunisia's Nationalist Party could hardly have wished for a better ally. Established by Sofien Ben Sghaïer in 2018, the party did little to trouble the public' consciousness until their campaign of earlier this year, when they began a petition to deport undocumented black migrants from the country, encouraging neighbours to report neighbours, and urging the police to wade in. 

That the campaign was racist - rather than merely nationalist -  is evidenced by the legions of white European and American migrants, many undocumented, who still live in the northern suburbs of the capital and whose comfortable existence remains entirely untroubled. 

Migrants leave after Tunisian police forces evacuated a makeshift camp outside the International Organization for Migration office in Tunis, Tuesday, April 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)


Like anywhere, few in Tunisia would admit to being overt racists. However, a walk around any of the working class neighbourhoods that skirt the capital is enough to elicit the sort of comments that wouldn't appear out of place on GB News - or, indeed, at a meeting of Rishi Sunak’s cabinet. 

"I'm against the violence," Mohamed Anouar, a young market trader in one of the down at heel reaches, in the otherwise affluent suburb of Soukra, told The Lead via a translator, "We just need to get rid of those without papers. Those who are legally entitled to stay here, can stay."

Mohamed says he and  his family have all seen the videos that flooded Tunisian social media earlier this year, many of dubious provenance, pushed by the Nationalist Party and designed to ratchet up tensions, while calling upon the racial insecurities that have, for many, simmered just below the surface. 

Growing EU collusion

Tunisia was rarely the destination of choice for many of the undocumented black migrants who ended up staying here anyway. The bulk had all arrived hoping to cross into Europe. A number had already tried crossing from Libya, before the EU funneled funds into its notoriously corrupt and heavy-handed coast guard, who intercept the boats - and, in some cases, sell the captured migrants to slave traders. 

Now, growing EU influence off Tunisia's coast looks to be aimed at keeping them here, too. Increasingly, the debate is framed exclusively in terms of migration. Since 2017, Italy has invested some €75 million in Tunisia’s maritime security. Elsewhere, in Libya, a state without any central government or institutional accountability, Rome exerts unrivaled influence over the country’s coastguard, part of a maritime operation it funds almost in its entirety. Egypt, labouring under a brutal autocracy and with no civil rights to speak of, inked an €80 million border management programme with the EU in September to help restrict migration to Europe. 

It's little wonder that the Nationalist Party's talk of a European plot to colonise Tunisia with black migrants should find a willing audience. However, the President's platforming of the Party's position, elevating it to the point of state mantra, likely came as an unexpected surprise event to the activists and theorists of the group. 

"The speed with which it was accepted was shocking," Amine Snoussi, a Tunisian author and analyst said of the rapid spread of the President’s theories, "At a diplomatic level, even the Ambassador to Congo was repeating unfounded claims of migrants waving knives in the streets of, (central city) Sfax. People believed that, especially those who don't follow the news or are politically involved."

"It's how they treat us when we go to Europe"

However, the pogroms didn't occur in isolation, Snoussi added, pointing to the growing sense of panic taking hold across Tunisia, as the shortfalls in the national economy take ever greater bites out of each household's weekly expenditure. 

"This is what they fed into," Snoussi said, "They had activists out and in the neighbourhoods most affected, as in Europe, telling people there that the migrants were damaging them, stealing their jobs and hurting their families economically. People identified with that," he said.  

In Soukra, smoking a cigarette outside a cafe, unemployed Mohamed Ali says that he has no real problem with the official clampdown on the undocumented black migrants living in Tunis. "It's how they treat us when we go to Europe," he says of the tens of thousands of Tunisians who arrive in the Italian reception centres daily 2,000 from across the Mediterranean who landed over Easter weekend alone, allowing  the far-right government in Rome to declare  a state of emergency. 

Across Europe, and especially within the southern states, there is a concerted effort to push migrants back, with growing disregard for human lives or for international asylum laws.  In addition to the UK's controversial Rwanda scheme, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission visited Niger last year to discuss migrant returns. Over the same period, delegations from Frontex, the bloc's border agency, visited Senegal, Morocco and the Balkans. Elsewhere, senior staff at the same border agency were found to have wilfully covered up the illegal pushback of migrants across the borders of Greece and Turkey. 

"There's a clear strategy to outsource migration arrivals beyond Europe," Ahlam Chemlali, a migration researcher, told The Lead, "Politicians from across Europe are all speaking of migration being "out of control." It's true there's been an increase in numbers, but it's not out of control," she said, referencing the massive numbers of irregular migrants living across Turkey and the Middle East. 

"Instead, we're being told that this isn't about pushing people back, including some of the most desperate in the world. Politicians pitch this as a humanitarian effort, a bid to take on and destroy the business of people smugglers. We're not doing that. Deporting people just creates the conditions for repeat business," she said.

In addition to criticism of pushbacks from Frontex are conditions among the migrant camps of Libya. Building upon a growing testimony of evidence of maltreatment, rape and the systematic  use of torture against migrants by Libyan militias, has been the recent charges contained in the April report by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, claiming EU complicity in the inhuman treatment meted out to migrants along the Libyan coast. None of this appears to have troubled the consciences of either the EU in Brussels or the wider European public. 

"The fear, (of migrants) is having a worrying affect on socities across Europe," Chemlali continued, "where they're willing to turn a blind eye to torture and human rights abuses, as long as the irregular migrants are deported," she said, "it doesn't really matter what happens to them."

In Tunis, Mohamed doesn't seem too concerned. He escaped the horror of Darfur to get here. Now he just wants to get out of Tunis and away from the racism he's experienced. The morning's police raid has left him and the others with nothing. 

He knows the risk, but he'll try to get to Europe again. He's tried before. 

"Nobody here likes us," he says. 

With politicians like Meloni and Braverman in power, it's all too easy to imagine him saying the same thing even he does make it across. 

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