Hundreds of people in Tunisia’s capital took to the streets on Saturday to protest over the president’s anti-migrant clampdown.
On Tuesday, amid wider moves against his critics, President Kais Saied accused undocumented sub-Saharan migrants of being part of a plot to change the country’s character, bringing longstanding racial tensions to the surface.
Since the president’s comments, there have been reports across social media of mob violence, with accounts of crowds storming the houses of migrants and forcibly evicting the occupants.
There have also been reports of private transport companies refusing to sell tickets to those perceived to be undocumented, and many civil society organisations have been scrambling to find shelter for the displaced.
In response to the escalating racial tensions, Tunisia’s typically young and educated activists, more used to opposing than supporting the country’s former political class, have found common cause with the politicians and former judges now subject to arbitrary arrest and trial.
“I have faith that there are enough people in Tunisia who understand that there is no place for racism in a country that has managed to fight its way to freedom after years of dictatorship,” said Chaima Bouhel, a well-known civil society figure who was among about 1,000 protesters in Tunis on Saturday.
“And definitely, there is no space for racism in our administration or our president’s speech, and no space for violence for anyone; Tunisians and nonTunisians. This is a land that should be open for everyone, and Tunisia should not be the police for any kind of borders, northern or southern,” she said, with reference to the country’s role as a frequent transit point for asylum seekers and refugees.
Marchers held banners, a number of them in English, claiming solidarity with migrants and reasserting Tunisia’s status as part of Africa. They chanted: “No fear, no terror, the street is for the people.”
Policing of the event was almost nonexistent, with the Ministry of Interior appearing to be taking a deliberately light touch in response to the protest.
Many of those marching had initially welcomed Saied’s dramatic move to suspend the country’s parliament and dismiss the prime minister in July 2021. However, food shortages and the struggling economy have eroded the support for a president apparently fixated on revising the country’s constitution at the expense of addressing its long-running decline.
As the legal clampdown on his critics has continued, the president’s rhetoric has grown increasingly charged. In recent weeks he has labelled opponents “traitors and terrorists”, as well as claiming on several occasions that he is subject to assassination plots. He has also threatened judges overseeing the trials of detainees that they would be prosecuted if they acquit them.
His stance has drawn international condemnation, from the African Union, the US and France.
However, the president’s message, reflecting longstanding racial tensions in the country, appears to be striking a chord with some.
While protesters supporting migrants gathered in the city centre, one passerby looking at the crowd was heard to say: “You protest today and it’s our turn tomorrow. We’ll see who has more.”