Why is Tunisia in crisis and why do sub-Saharan people want to leave?
The president, Kais Saied, is using refugees and opposition figures as scapegoats to distract from a struggling economy and his rolling power grab
What is happening in Tunisia?
Tunisia is in the grip of several overlapping crises. Its economy is struggling and its increasingly authoritarian president, Kais Saied, who has consolidated power since a constitutional coup in 2018, has launched a wide-ranging crackdown on his political opponents and undocumented people from other parts of Africa.
The situation has become so bad that US legislators this week wrote to the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, demanding that he “ensure that any US foreign assistance to Tunisia supports the restoration of inclusive, democratic governance and rule of law”.
A wave of racist violence unleashed by Saied after a speech in which he said migration posed a threat to the state has led to a sharp rise in attempts to cross the Mediterranean to Italy – a route described by the UN as the deadliest sea-crossing for refugees globally.
What kind of numbers are we talking about?
According to UN figures 12,000 people have reached Italy so far this year having set sail from Tunisia, compared with 1,300 in the same period of 2022. Fatalities from shipwrecks have also risen sharply, with dozens of deaths at sea in recent weeks.
How does this fit into Tunisia’s other problems?
Saied has used the migration issue as a scapegoat to distract attention from his creeping authoritarianism and the country’s economic problems.
Living standards have dropped because of rising prices, and low wages, and the youth unemployment rate, which began to fall from a peak of above 40% in 2021, is rising again.
Italy wants the IMF to unblock a $1.9bn loan, fearful that without the cash, the country will be destabilised.
Emigration by Tunisians has been steadily increasing in recent years as the economic situation has worsened.
Since coming to power in 2019 Saied has temporarily ruled by decree, stripped parliament of its powers, and, more recently, ordered a chilling roundup of political opponents.
In February he claimed in a xenophobic speech that undocumented immigration from sub-Saharan African countries was aimed at changing Tunisia’s demographic composition and was contributing to poverty and economic issues. “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,” he said.
Saied’s remarks were condemned as racist by human rights activists, including Romdhane Ben Amor, of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, who described the speech as aimed at “creating an imaginary enemy for Tunisians to distract them from their basic problems”.
Summing up Saied’s approach, Tarek Megerisi, a north Africa analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, described the president as “avoiding economic reform [while] clinging instead to conspiracy theories that blame his critics and speculators for all problems”.
“In a desperate deflection tactic, he has embraced a Tunisian version of the rightwing ‘great replacement theory’, prompting a racist crackdown on black Africans living in and migrating through the country.”
The president’s speech was also seen as undermining Tunisia’s minority black population, which makes up between 10 and 15% of the country’s citizens, and has been blamed for a rise in hate speech and racist violence.
Are Saied’s remarks driving the increased numbers on the sea crossings?
It’s more complicated than that. The mild weather since the beginning of the year may have attracted more people to attempt the crossing, while some people appear to be choosing to cross from Tunisia rather than Libya, which has been supplied by Italy with funds and equipment to intercept people leaving by sea.
What does this say about the country’s politics?
Saied’s language and behaviour has become ever harsher and his anti-migration comments are of a piece with his attacks on Tunisian opposition figures.
Earlier this year his regime imprisoned two prominent politicians and a high-profile businessman, who were targeted in the midst of a crackdown on opposition politicians, activists, protest organisers and judges.
Saied has called opponents traitors, terrorists and criminals – and like migrants – tried to blame them for the country’s poor economic situation that has persisted since the 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab spring.
Although Tunisia was seen as the biggest success story of the Arab spring, since Saied – a constitutional lawyer – came to power in 2019 the country’s democratic progress has been in reverse. Voter turnout, already in decline since 2011, has gone further downhill under his watch.
In 2021 Saied dismissed the parliament and prime minister, ruling by decree until he was able to institute a new constitution formalising his powers.
While Saied’s rolling power-grab has drawn international criticism, some countries – including Italy – have soft-pedalled their response to Saied’s increasing authoritarianism, apparently preferring a strongman in Tunis who will be tough on the maritime people-smuggling routes.