Tunisia: Racist attacks on migrants reflect the crisis of the system

In recent weeks a wave of vicious racist attacks targeting black migrants has swept Tunisia. Across the country, entire families are being evicted by their landlords, and wages are being withheld by the bosses. On the order of the president, Kais Saied, police have detained hundreds of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who have come to the country in search of work or to study.

Stories of pogrom-like attacks with machetes or knives are widespread. In the coastal city of Sfax, four black migrants were stabbed on the street, and in other cities gangs of young men have dragged migrants from their homes, only to watch their possessions being burned on the street. These racist attacks have led Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Mali, and Gabon to evacuate hundreds of their citizens from the country.

This wave of racist attacks began after Kais Saied, in a grotesque speech on 21 February, accused undocumented black migrants of instigating violence and crime, and of participating in a secret plot to change the demographics of Tunisia. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa only make up an insignificant 0.17 percent of the entire Tunisian population, but around 10-15 percent of the country’s citizens descend from enslaved sub-Saharan Africans brought to Tunisia before slavery was abolished in 1846.

This sizable group of black Tunisians already face discrimination, which is only intensifying as Kais Said whips up racist hysteria in a desperate attempt to divert the frustration of the masses and to stabilise his own rule. These racist attacks thus reflect the deep political crisis of the regime and represent a new, tragic chapter in the crisis of Tunisian capitalism.

Rejection of the entire establishment

Since 2021, when Kais Saied ousted the government and took power in a palace coup, the economic and social crisis has accelerated rapidly in Tunisia. The Tunisian state is running a near 10 percent budget deficit, and along with Ukraine and El Salvador, it ranks among Morgan Stanley’s top three countries most likely to default on their debt. Officially, unemployment is above 15 percent, but is much higher amongst the youth, where almost 40 percent are condemned to unemployment and poverty.

Simultaneously, the workers and poor of Tunisia are being crushed by rising inflation and food shortages. In February, inflation reached 10.4 percent, up from 8.3 percent in 2022. Food shortages and empty shelves have become a common sight and many supermarkets have begun rationing certain products. Long queues have become the norm at gas stations, at supermarkets and at bakeries. The shortages have become so severe that, in some instances, police have been escorting milk and fuel distributors.

Refugees Image Monica Marks TwitterKais Saied, in a grotesque speech on 21 February, accused undocumented black migrants of instigating violence and crime / Image: Monica Marks, Twitter

In short, life has become unbearable for the vast majority, who have lost what little support they had for the present system. This was clearly reflected in the recent parliamentary elections held this winter. The first round of the election in December resulted in the second lowest voter turnout ever recorded worldwide in an election since 1945. Only 11.2 percent of Tunisians turned out to vote, and the result was only marginally higher in the second round in January, when 11.3 percent cast their ballot!

Many Tunisians actively boycotted the elections, which were seen as a farce, with power remaining firmly in the hands of Kais Saied and not the parliament, under his new constitution. The election result was thus a clear vote of no confidence in Kais Saied, first and foremost, and a rejection of his despotic rule.

But the low turnout also reflects a general rejection of the entire political establishment, which collectively bears the responsibility for the desperate economic situation of the country. Before Saied’s coup, both the secular parties and the Islamic Ennahda party, that have ruled the country in alternation since the 2011 revolution, have been completely discredited. They have utterly failed to fulfil the modest demands of the revolution. Instead, they used their position in politics to enrich themselves.

Before Kais Saied took power in 2021, people had already turned their back on the main political parties of the country. Their deep unpopularity was, in fact, one of the conditions that made the coup possible, and the disdain that persists towards these parties makes them incapable of leading a mass movement against Saied’s increasingly despotic regime.

The unbelievable social conditions have created a burning hatred for the entire elite of the country. The election thus reflected a wholesale rejection of the entire political establishment, that has only delivered disappointment and betrayal. As one woman expressed to an interviewer: “We don't want elections. We want milk, and sugar and cooking oil.”

Divide and rule

The election result was a clear defeat for Kais Saied – one that revealed how much his support has declined. He could feel the ground shake beneath his feet, and in a classic policy of divide and rule, targeted sub-Saharan migrants as scapegoats, appealing to the most backward layers of society with naked racism.

But Kais Saied is not only relying on traditional racist divide and rule tactics. In line with his demagogic way of ruling, he has recently lashed out at members of the old political elite in an attempt to shore up support for himself. In mid-February, Kamel Eltaief, a highly influential oligarch and longtime ally of the former dictator Ben Ali, was arrested and charged with planning a terrorist plot against the state.

In the eyes of the Tunisian masses, Kamel Eltaief embodies the corruption and clientelism of the elite and the politics of the former dictatorship, and his arrest is thus understandably popular. On social media, people celebrated his arrests with words such as, “The arrest of Kamel Eltaief is the best news since the 2011 revolution. He destroyed Tunisia. Anyone he worked with should be detained,”

For over a decade, Tunisians have waited for the arrest of people such as Kamel Eltaief, who have amassed immense riches by exploiting the Tunisian people and supporting their oppressors.

Kaïs Saïd Image Houcemmzoughi Wikimedia CommonsBehind the tough words of Kais Saied, a more accommodative policy towards his fellow crooks is revealed / Image: Houcemmzoughi, Wikimedia Commons

But behind the tough words of Kais Saied, a more accommodative policy towards his fellow crooks is revealed. Last year, Saied issued a decree offering amnesty to businessmen suspected of corruption, bribery and other crimes to avoid punishment by investing in regional development. It is very understandable that masses are celebrating the arrest of Kamel Eltaief, but if crooks like him are ever to face real justice, it will have to be by the masses’ own hands.

Capitalist dead end

These measures have not succeeded, however, in diverting the frustration and anger of the masses. Despite a ban on protests, over the last few months thousands have taken to the streets in numerous demonstrations opposing Kais Saied and the desperate economic condition of the country.

For instance, on 4 March more than 3,000 people participated in a rally in the capital Tunis, led by the large UGTT trade union. The trade union demonstration was called in opposition to the authorities’ recent crackdown on government critics, including politicians, journalists and trade unionists. At the demonstration, UGTT leader Noureddine Taboubi demanded the release of trade union militants arrested after organising a strike, and he rightly denounced the recent wave of racist attacks instigated by Saied.

But in the same breath, Noureddine Taboubi appealed to Saied to promote “dialogue” and “democratic ways”. This is naive and utopian, and has a reactionary effect. It sows confusion amongst UGTT members and other workers, in the idea that it is somehow possible to persuade Saied to change course. It misses the core of the issue: that the deep crisis of Tunisia is not the result of one man’s unwillingness to participate in “dialogue”, but instead the result of the dead end of Tunisian capitalism.

The only measure that can turn around the desperate economic and social situation of the country, is one that breaks with capitalism and places power in the hands of the working class, which the UGTT reformist leaders will never do.

A new revolution is brewing

Tunisia 2011 Image cjb Wikimedia CommonsOn the basis of capitalism, none of the problems that brought the workers and youth onto the streets in 2011 have been resolved / Image: cjb, Wikimedia Commons

A strong sense of anger and frustration simmers across the entire country. As a Tunisian worker said in an interview: “People are no longer happy and cannot even laugh. Everything is difficult. If you laugh now, you feel bad”. A social explosion is in the making, and we are not the only ones who can see that the situation has revolutionary implications.

The representatives of international finance capital can also see the writing on the wall. In December, the Executive Board of the IMF postponed the discussions for a possible loan to Tunisia, due to “a negative notice issued by its Risk Management Department confirming that Tunisia is on the verge of major political upheavals in the upcoming months.”

More than ten years have passed since the Tunisian masses rose up and overthrew the hated dictator, Ben Ali. But on the basis of capitalism, none of the problems that brought the workers and youth onto the streets in 2011 have been resolved. The material contradictions, which created the revolution in 2011, not only remain intact, but have in fact intensified. Neither Saied, the Ennahda party or any other party of the establishment can offer a way out of the crisis and despair. Only through the struggle for socialism can the impasse of the current system be ended.

A new revolution is needed: one that brushes aside the whole edifice of the capitalist regime and puts the workers firmly in charge of society. Only in this way will it be possible to put an end to racist scapegoating, and all the deprivation and humiliation that the masses suffer on a daily basis.

What is needed to succeed in the fight to change society is a revolutionary leadership, which can unite the struggles of the Tunisian workers and youth on a socialist programme. The task of the youth and workers of Tunisia is therefore to build a revolutionary organisation with roots in the working class before the next revolutionary movement breaks out; one capable of leading the workers and oppressed masses towards the conquest of power.

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