Tunisia’s populism and racially-charged purges offers chilling context for the UK’s migration clampdown, writes Simon Speakman Cordall

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Tunisia, once the “lighthouse of the Arab Spring”, has been embroiled in a wave of racist violence since February. Fuelled by populist politics, a nationalistic press and the apparent desire to confront complex problems with ‘red meat’ and increased nationalism, Tunisia’s President has steered his country on a dark course.

In doing so, he has offered Britain a funhouse mirror in which to look.

Tunisia’s political purges were already underway when President Kais Saied, a former law professor and political novice, published a speech to his Security Council late in the evening of 21 February. Used to his pronouncements on traitors, terrorists and the latest international conspiracy against the state, there was little expectation that this latest salvo would differ. It did.

In fact, it sparked a fire that has since engulfed many of the poor neighbourhoods where the country’s undocumented black migrants shelter and eke out livings on precarious employment. 

“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” President Saied told his Security Council, going to on to stress the need to “put an end to this phenomenon quickly, especially as the uncontrolled immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa continue with violence [and] unacceptable crimes”.

The waves of violence that followed on the heels of his speech has shocked many Tunisians, more used to being lauded for their progressive values than their racism.

According to one ivorian waiting outside his embassy, it was like a switch being flipped. Since then, many migrant families have been dragged from their homes and seen their possessions burned in the street. Others, sleeping rough in the street outside the Tunis offices for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), speak of rape or of being threatened with knives and machetes. 

While shocking, this crackdown didn’t come out of the blue. It has emerged from a well of anger over an economy that continues to decline; gaps in supermarket shelves that continue to grow; and the cost of living which continues to climb beyond the reach of many. 

All the while, rather than address the core problems facing Tunisia, its President – buoyed by a supportive media – has embarked on a populist witch-hunt of his political opponents and now one of the country’s most vulnerable groups. 

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The parallels closer to home are stark.

As the UK Government focuses its efforts on pushing through an immigration bill that it itself admits has only a 50% chance of meeting international legal thresholds, there are parallels between both sets of leaderships.

Like Tunisia’s President, Rishi Sunak Government is attempting to use populist nationalism and the wilful demonising of migrants as cover for its own gross economic mismanagement and flailing popularity.

While President Saied’s suspension of the Tunisian Parliament – widely regarded as ineffective and corrupt – in July 2021 was met by popular celebration, his almost monomaniacal fixation on redrawing the constitution at the expense of the economy has carried genuine impacts for the swathes of the population unaffected by his political vision.

Turnout for two sets of elections for the redrawn Parliament barely scraped into double figures. However, following the crackdown on political opponents – often arrested without charge – and his vilification of the country’s undocumented black migrants, the energy that once characterised his electoral base in the poor urban suburbs now vibrates with fresh energy.

One walk round the less affluent reaches of one in Arian, near Tunis, is enough to convince the most ardent cynic. Gathered in the markets there, or sitting smoking outside cafes, many acknowledge their fresh of support for the President since his crackdown. 

Asked about the 21,000 or so black migrants residing in Tunisia, no one here is racist, they say – they simply want to distinguish between those who are here legally and illegally. It sounds reasonable enough. In fact, it could probably pass for small talk at a Conservative Party fundraiser. However, at least in Tunisia, that reasonableness fades when pressed.

“They’re selling cocaine, they’re selling their wives and their girlfriends to each other,” Bassem, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, told me. “They’re even buying boats and taking still more migrants to Europe.” In this part of Ariana, every Tunisian has a lurid tale, always experienced at one remove, which they reel off as ‘proof’ of the criminality of the country’s black migrant population.

While the political and social cultures of Britain and Tunisia clearly differ, consider the rhetoric of the UK’s Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, who has said the country is experiencing an invasion. Consider the attacks on migrant centres across the UK, most recently outside a hotel housing asylum seekers in Knowsley, organised by far-right groups.

“I was chased out of my house,” one young Nigerian man said, from outside the IOM building. “People from different nationalities from all over Tunis have been attacked.”

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Further along, sheltering in the lee of a black plastic tarpaulin shelter, a Sierra Leonean, who said he was a refugee, picked up the theme. “They came for us with knives and machetes,” he said. “They robbed us. They kicked down the door and dragged us from our apartment.”

To date, none of these stories are troubling Tunisia’s mainstream media, which appears more focused on defending Tunisia’s national image and parroting the President’s attack lines than delivering facts to a public growing increasingly hostile to the unwarranted international condemnation it feels itself subject to.

Meanwhile, the UK’s established media has spent the past week fixated on the employment terms of a BBC sports commentator than scrutinising a law that stands to make the lives of tens of thousands of people immeasurably worse. 

At a recent press conference, in the wake of the news that the World Bank’s partnership with Tunisia was being suspended as a result of the racist violence, many Tunisian journalists fumed about the “campaign” against the country, while the Foreign Minister, Nabil Ammar, talked of exaggeration, “fake news” and media outlets operating to foreign agendas.

Just as the UK media is yet to truly reckon with the financial impact of Brexit on the country’s poorest, so the Tunisian media is unwilling to fully address the consequences of the suspension of the World Bank partnership and the increasing uncertainty surrounding a sorely needed IMF bail-out

Both of these are going to hold direct consequences for each countries’ poorest. Both are going to increase an already high cost of living and, in the starkest terms, are going to leave many people cold, hungry and without explanation. 

It seems that, where Tunisia leads, Britain follows.


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