Tunisia: the nail in the coffin of the Arab Spring

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Tunisia was once the great hope of the Arab Spring, the sole democracy to emerge from the uprisings that swept North Africa in 2011. But the days of it being the showcase of the Arab world are gone, said Le Monde (Paris); with each passing week, the nation’s image is stained a little more. 

The problems began with the election of Kais Saied as president in 2019. Within three years he had suspended parliament, and much of the constitution drawn up in 2014, and concentrated power in his own hands. 

His repressive policies have been matched by increasingly xenophobic rhetoric that culminated in a speech last month in which he raged about “hordes” of migrants arriving in Tunisia from sub-Saharan Africa, bringing with them “violence, crimes and unacceptable practices”, and conspiring to alter radically the demographics of a proud nation. 

As a result of its slave trade (abolished in 1846), Tunisia has a sizeable black minority (about 10% to 15% of the population), said Lisa Bryant on VOA (Washington). And it was also the first country in North Africa and the Middle East to have criminalised racial discrimination (with a law passed in 2018). 

But Saied’s speech was targeted not against black Tunisians, but against the thousands of sub-Saharan newcomers – a mix of students and of migrants trying to get to Europe. And it has set off a “spiral of violence” against them, said Louis Celestin in Guinée News (Conakry) – there are numerous accounts of people being attacked with machetes; of gangs of young men kicking down the doors of houses and dragging black migrant families into the street, forcing them to watch their possessions being burned. 

Racial tensions have long simmered beneath Tunisia’s “ostensibly progressive surface”, said Simon Speakman Cordall in Foreign Policy (Washington). But they have been hugely exacerbated by Saied’s campaign calling on Tunisians to report undocumented migrants to authorities: the security services have arrested black migrants en masse; racism has come to “define their lives”. 

How sad that it has come to this, said Hafed Al-Ghwell in Arab News (Riyadh). When Tunisians elected Saied, a former law professor, they believed he could almost “single-handedly” piece together the foundations on which a resilient democracy could be built: but that takes the sort of “tireless” work for which Saied has shown no appetite whatsoever. Instead, he has focused solely on “clinging to power” – leaving the dreams of democracy that Tunisians once harboured “all but buried”.

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