Headed by Sofien Ben Sghaier, the Tunisian Nationalist Party was recognized by the state in 2018. More than two months ago, the Party launched a campaign to expel all irregular migrants originating from sub-Saharan Africa. A petition circulated by the political movement collected nearly one million signatures. The document, which will be addressed to regional and central authorities, covers four points: the expulsion of migrants in an irregular situation; the expulsion of any migrant from sub-Saharan Africa who has engaged in illicit activities or « disrupted the public order »; a visa requirement for sub-Saharan countries; abrogation of the Organic Law 2018-50 of October 23, 2019 combating racial discrimination.
The leaders of this extremist party visit neighborhoods throughout the governorate of Ariana, making their way through the markets and knocking on the doors of local government officials. Their proclaimed objective: to press for the expulsion of sub-Saharan migrants—who they have labeled « Ajasiyin » (an acronym derived from the Arabic initials of Afriquia Janoub Al-Sahra)—from Tunisia. The surveillance and expulsion of sub-Saharan migrants is, the Party argues, the government’s most important task, since, as party members maintain, it means protecting Tunisia from the peril of sub-Saharan colonization.
Paranoia: « immigrants threaten the nation’s identity »
« Racism is a heinous crime punishable by the law. This racist discourse includes the incitation of violence and violates the provisions under Article 9 of the law combating racial discrimination », says legal advisor Hanen Ben Hassana who works with the association Mnemty.
In this way, the demands voiced by the Tunisian National Party converge with those expressed by openly racist, extreme-right political parties in Europe. Both perceive insecurity as being related to the presence of immigrants who threaten the country’s identity. In Tunisia as in Europe, human rights organizations are vilified and accused of imposing national policies favorable to migrants. These political parties also promote the notion of « national preference » according to which employers should prioritize hiring nationals.
Houssem Touben, member of the National Party’s political office, told Nawaat that the priority is to protect Tunisia from « sub-Saharan colonization ». His party disposes of « proof of the existence of a colonization plan », Touben maintains. He also points out that « Europe allocates significant sums to keeping immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia ». In this regard, Touben confesses that he is fearful about « the possibility of bloody confrontations » with sub-Saharan communities.
Professor Hanen Ben Hassana refutes these statements, noting that « Tunisia is a transit country » and that she neither believes in the possibility of a state within the state by sub-Saharan migrants nor the eventuality of so-called colonization. Moreover, Hassana recalls that « the presence of immigrants is regulated by international agreements ».
Touben for his part affirms that his party has submitted reports to the Ministry of the Interior, the Office of the Prime Minister and the Office of the President, as well as to the governors of regions with large sub-Saharan communities. The documents contained within these files include data collected by party members, testimonies from the residents of certain neighborhoods, and information available on the internet, as Touben explains. According to this data, sub-Saharan migrants are threatening to expel Tunisians from the country, since they consider Tunisia to belong to them and to their ancestors, reports the Party member.
The Tunisian Nationalist Party has most notably founded its campaign on the clashes which broke out between migrants and locals in Sfax’s Bahri neighborhood. The extremist party also expresses grave concern regarding the expansion of churches run by sub-Saharans.
« The state is obliged to surveil their intense religious activity, since their churches have spread in many areas. Before we became aware of their implantation plan and decided to combat it, we had called for a different solution: to welcome African migrants who honor the value of work. We have also insisted that priority be granted to Muslim migrants and that they be taught the Arabic language so that they can easily integrate into Tunisia » Touben tells Nawaat.
But Touben does not contain his anger as he describes sub-Saharan migrants’ goal to chase Tunisians from their country, to colonize and steal its history on the pretext that Hannibal was black and that Islam began in their homeland.
The brother of the party’s president describes his sense of exasperation at the sight of a pregnant sub-Saharan woman. « They live in Tunisia, land jobs in restaurants, obtain aid that should be granted first and foremost to Tunisians, and make children. This is how the history of occupation began in Palestine. The same can happen in Tunisia, which will be thus occupied by the State of Ajsael (in reference to the acronym cited above) », he proclaims. The Tunisian Nationalist Party calls upon Tunisians to not rent apartments to sub-Saharans and to not employ them, while urging police to surveil their places of work and residence.
And still Houssem Touben refutes accusations of racism, considering such accusations to be a threat against his party. « We are not against Blacks, but we are for the application of the law which forbids renting a house to a foreigner without reporting his presence. The call to expel individuals in an irregular situation from the country is a call to apply Tunisian law », he insists. However, the extremist movement does not only target migrants without papers. It also aims to impose an entry visa for nationals of sub-Saharan countries. Nevertheless, Touben maintains that his party operates according to the law and that the authorities are aware of all of its activities.
Indeed, the governor of Ariana received the Party on December 29, at the height of their campaign against sub-Saharan migrants, Touben recalled. According to him, the governor adopted their positions regarding crimes and violations committed by these communities. After his meeting with the governor, Touben wrote in a Facebook status:
In light of the issue’s gravity, I cannot publish details relating to the meeting. But I am very happy to observe that officials are aware of the danger. And they need popular support from all Tunisians. There are signs that the problem will be resolved before the country is taken over
When the presidential campaign was in full swing in 2019, Touben brandished his enthusiasm for Kais Saied. He was even part of the president’s electoral rallies in neighborhoods throughout the Ariana governorate. This support has remained unwavering since 2011, and did not falter when the president froze parliament with the power grab on July 25, 2021. On this point, Romdhane Ben Amor, director of migration issues at the Tunisian Economic and Social Rights Forum (FTDES), tells Nawaat that the Nationalist Party’s discourse is the result of a political, economic and social situation that is discriminatory against migrants. He adds that « This is another face of populism which arises from the political populist discourse that currently prevails in the country. The public prosecutor has not mobilized to prosecute the Party and its adherents, who lead campaigns against immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. In the meantime, they are received and listened to by regional officials ».
For Ben Amor, the Party is in a certain way promoting segregation. According to him, sub-Saharan immigrants are in Tunisia based on international agreements in place. It is in fact the country’s discriminatory laws which keep them in an irregular situation; « Aside from sub-Saharans, dozens of European immigrants are in an irregular situation in Tunisia as a result of these laws ». Some 57 thousand migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are currently living in Tunisia, according to the United Nations. Some attempt to exaggerate this number in order to promote racist discourse, Ben Amor remarks.
« These are human beings with the same rights as us. But this party’s discourse is based on a security approach. And the most dangerous thing is that these forces can develop and get closer to power because this is the natural result of the extreme right’s expansion in the world », observes Ben Amor.
In the meantime, pages on Facebook and Twitter which claim to be dedicated to security issues are openly promoting the extremist party’s approach towards sub-Saharan migrants. Zied Rouin, member of the anti-racist association Mnemty, told Nawaat that this racist rhetoric is fed by the discourse used by police and security syndicates which portray irregular migrants as representing a danger for Tunisians.
The association Mnemty intends to file lawsuit against the National Party for violation of the law governing political parties and Law 50 of 2018 concerning the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. Another Tunisian NGO has already taken legal action against the Party. The Nationalist Party for its part accuses human rights organizations of treason and of serving foreign countries’ agendas. On this point, Zied Rouin says that « the qualifications which categorize Tunisians as either traitors or patriots are a reflection of official discourse, in particular the discourse used by the president and the Ministry of the Interior ».
But in spite of its racist rhetoric, the Tunisian Nationalist Party is acting within full view of the government. The movement’s founders and members are received by government representatives, even as the party proceeds to violate national law and international agreements. Article 4 of Decree-law 2011-87 of September 24, 2011 prohibits political parties from « relying (in their statutes, statements, agendas or activities) upon the incitation of violence, hatred, intolerance and discrimination based on religion, category, gender or region ».
Has the government adopted this discriminatory and segregationist approach, or has it closed its eyes in anticipation of the situation’s deterioration? Either way, racist discourse has found its outlets on certain media platforms and is thriving in what has proven to be the very fertile ground of conspiracy theory.