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Tunisia’s autocratic ruler adopts ‘great replacement’ theory

IT is rhetoric This has become all too common among European populists. “hordes” of African migrants have flooded their homes, bringing with them “violence, crime and unacceptable practices”. Their arrival is a plot to change the demographics of a proud nation. But fear not. The president, who ran for office as an outsider determined to upend the political order, has vowed to take urgent steps to protect his country’s borders.

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One thing sets it apart: the language comes not from Marine Le Pen or Georgia Meloni, but from Tunisian President Keith Saeed.

His remarks at the National Security Council meeting on February 21 were ironic. His citizens have long been on the receiving end of that rhetoric after crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe — a journey his autocratic presidency prompted more to attempt. Yet, with Tunisia’s economy sluggish and popular anger running high, he has used the same language against immigrants within himself.

Saied’s election in 2019 was the product of years of political dysfunction. After Tunisians overthrew longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, the country was paralyzed by squabbles between Islamist and secularist parties. Neither is particularly good at addressing the pervasive problems — weak economies, rampant corruption, stark inequality — that unsettle many citizens. That leaves 73% of voters willing to support Mr Saied, a little-known law professor with a robotic demeanor and only the vaguest of campaign platforms.

He spent most of his presidency dismantling a young democracy. In 2021, he suspended much of the constitution and sent tanks to seal the gates of parliament. A new constitution was hastily passed last year in a staccato referendum, ensuring he can govern as a strong president free from checks and balances in the legislature.

Over the past few weeks, police have amassed a growing list of critics. Leaders of both Islamist and secularist parties have been dragged from their homes. So did the head of a popular radio station, a prominent lawyer and the head of a football club. Criticizing the president is now effectively a criminal offense.

There is much to criticize, as Mr Saeed has done little to repair the economic downturn. Annual inflation topped 10% in January. The unemployment rate is 15%. A third of university graduates and an even higher proportion of young people cannot find work. Since 2011, the currency has lost 55% of its value.buried under a huge public debt worth 89% gross domestic product, Tunisia struggles to pay for imports; sugar, pasta and other staples have been in short supply.Bailout talks with government International Monetary Fund deadlocked.

Tunisians are desperate to escape their stagnant authoritarian state. A survey last year by a pro-business think tank found that 71 percent of public university graduates wanted to immigrate. Educated or wealthy Tunisians fly to the West, to the Gulf or, ironically, to sub-Saharan Africa. Poor Tunisians try their luck in the Mediterranean. In 2019, the year Mr Saeed took office, more than 2,600 people arrived in Italy by boat. In 2022, more than 18,000 people risked crossing from Tunisia.

play the blame game

Those who remain are losing faith in Mr Saied, whose popularity has plummeted. He blames a litany of scapegoats for Tunisia’s ills: corrupt politicians, price speculators, foreign embassies. Now he’s adding black immigrants to the list in comments so vicious they’ve even won praise from Eric Zemmour, an anti-immigration activist who ran in last year’s French presidential election. “The Maghreb countries themselves are starting to ring the alarm bells in the face of immigration,” he tweeted.

The proximity to Europe does make Tunisia a transit point for migrants coming to the country from countries like Ivory Coast. But they are few in number. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights estimates there are only 21,000 illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in this country of 12 million people. Many performed manual labor during their stay in Tunisia. Abuse and wage theft are common. Too bad if this is a plot to change the demographics of Tunisia.

Said’s remarks angered some Tunisians. On February 25, hundreds of people participated in protests. Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar had to issue something of the apology, saying the government would protect all migrants in Tunisia. But Syed’s words were also embraced by the audience. Dozens of black migrants were attacked or robbed after his remarks, human rights groups said. A Nigerian student group has warned its members not to use the subway or linger in popular neighborhoods of the capital.

Racism is a useful tool for demagogues everywhere. But Mr Saeed has no one to blame.Fears are growing that Tunisia will survive without International Monetary Fund trade. This would further cripple his economy – and send more of his citizens on board to try their own desperate journeys.

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