A Pan-African struggle that includes Arab countries can only succeed by dismantling the idea that blackness is not indigenous to North Africa
On 21 February 2023, Tunisian President Kais Saied convened a meeting of the National Security Council to take immediate action “to address the phenomenon of a large influx of irregular migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa to Tunisia.” This pronouncement and the violence that followed it reminded us how devastating colonialism has been for predominantly Arab countries and how to this day Arab societies in Africa are still desperately trying to get coopted into a certain idea of whiteness even when its conceptors still view all Africans, including Arab Africans, as people from inferior races.
To justify his populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and probably dodge the backlash that it was going to spark, the Tunisian leader was quick to put forward the same conspiracy theory that has been fueling the resurgence of far-right, white supremacist movements in Europe and the US: The Great Replacement. According to a statement posted on the Tunisian Presidency’s official Facebook page, Saied “emphasized that there is a criminal arrangement that has been planned since the beginning of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia by replacing Tunisia’s Arab and Islamic identity with people from Sub-Saharan African countries. He added that there are parties that received large sums of money after 2011 in order to settle irregular immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia.”
In response to the president’s outrageous claims, a vicious campaign against Sub-Saharan Africans has been waged in Tunisian streets since February. Shreya Parikh, a Tunisian academic, describes how the police and civilians harass anyone who identifies as ‘African,’ including Sub-Saharan students and documented workers, as well as Black Tunisians, with many being attacked, stabbed, and forced to flee. Tunisia has adopted a well-recycled, and violent formula: politicians claim that foreigners are flooding the country, jeopardizing its security, stability, and prosperity, thereby bringing to the fore and popularizing preexisting xenophobic sentiments. It is shameful.
As we attempt to comprehend the crisis that has engulfed African people in Tunisia, it is important to grasp the factors which influence identity politics in that country and in North Africa broadly.
Race and racism in North Africa
In “What is Whiteness in North Africa?”, Prof Leila Tayeb contends that 1) the formation of whiteness in and through North Africa only partially overlaps with the more dominant formations of whiteness attendant to and produced by European colonialism, and 2) blackness is constructed as if it is not indigenous to North Africa in a variety of discourses and performances in both scholarship and popular culture. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon described this phenomenon of alienation thus:
“Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it.” (Frantz Fanon, 1963, p. 210).
The violence resulting from this alienation is characterized by the victimization and brutalization of anyone who fits the social construction of what is to be an ‘African.’ Sub-Saharan students and undocumented guest workers, as well as black Tunisians, are being told to go home to “Africa” as if Tunisia was not part of Africa, a belief that is widespread and casually expressed in North Africa. In other words, the well-entrenched discourse that conceives North Africa as being fundamentally distinct from “Black Africa” contributes immensely to upholding this violent order.
The social ontology of race and racial contract
The “racial contract,” as the philosopher Charles Mills refers to it, is what underlies the presumptions of white guilt and black guilt (Arab guilt and Black guilt in this case). The racial contract is a codicil written in invisible ink that declares that the rules as written do not apply to non-White people in the same way. For instance, the racial contract states that although murder is against the law, it is OK for white people (Arab people in this case) to pursue and kill black people, hence even the announcement by President Said that racial attacks will be prosecuted is understood as an empty threat by the citizens of Tunisia.
Accordingly, while President Saied has softened his stance slightly since delivering his original speech, stating that racist attacks would be prosecuted, this did not stop the attacks. The usual rhetoric among individuals with anti-immigrant sentiments is that they have no issue with foreigners who are lawfully present in Tunisia and that they are only targeting illegal immigrants. It’s clear that this position holds no weight because, even after Saied’s speech, legal status didn’t appear to matter. Black people, including some native Tunisians with darker skin, experienced harassment on the streets, were arbitrarily detained, assaulted physically or verbally, evicted from their homes, and fired from their employment. Social media was rife with reports of people being refused service at retailers or post offices due to their skin tone. According to available reports, the police in Tunisia have been reluctant to respond to crimes reported by black Africans, and taxi drivers have refused to pick them up. Obviously, the President’s retracting, which did not include an outright apology, came too late, and the jury is still out against Blacks living in Tunisia, demonstrating that racism is deeply embedded in Tunisian society.
The irony here is that although Tunisia was the first country in the MENA region to pass legislation that criminalizes racial discrimination and allows victims of racism to seek redress for verbal or physical acts of racism in 2018, this has not translated into any real improvement in the treatment of black people because racism towards its black citizens has permeated deeply into the social, institutional, and political spheres of Tunisia. Black Tunisians and Sub-Saharan immigrants alike are frequently socially stigmatized and labelled as wossif (slave) or kahlouch (Arabic n-word). In recent months, a campaign of anti-Black hatred has swept through social media and the media, providing evidence to support this truism. Meanwhile, the Tunisian Nationalist Party, which believes that the presence of Black Africans in Tunisia is part of a “plot to change the composition of society,” is frequently invited in the media, and its members are outspoken in expressing these views online, with no response from the authorities. So, what does this mean for the dream of pan-Africanism which seems to remain elusive for the continent?
Pan-Africanism and the Arab Question
Pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah and Malcolm X were confronted with the issue of African-Arab relations in the 1960s. Arabs arrived in Africa as imperialists who often spread their culture through conquest, but by the 1960s, Arabs were a part of the global anti-colonial struggle because they, too, had been colonized by Europeans. Some Arab leaders, such as Nasser and Ben Bella, were even supporters of Pan-Africanism. Nkrumah envisioned an African Union that included the Arabized states of North Africa. Malcolm, on the other hand, took a more critical stance on African-Arab unity. He had supported the African revolution in Zanzibar against Arab rule and had also criticized Arabs for not doing enough to support the African American struggle.
The sad reality today is that a common struggle against Western colonialism will not erase the fact that many parts of Africa are still grappling with the consequences of the negative legacy of Arab’s conception of whiteness and its resulting violence. This legacy is relevant to the current crisis in Tunisia, and it will likely delay the common struggle against a more insidious and powerful adversary because people do not easily forget and forgive their oppressors. The South remembers.
Yet, even as we remember, we must chart a common path forward. There is no alternative if Africa is to break free from the chains of oppression. We must draw inspiration from Arab Pan-Africanists like Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ben Bella who knew that the Maghreb region could not defeat imperialism without Africa and vice versa.
In the same vein, Africans must support the fragile but resilient pushback against racism in Tunisia. The civil society of Tunisia, particularly Black Tunisian organizations, has mobilized heavily to support African migrants by setting up medical, legal, and housing support. On 25 February 2023, almost a thousand protesters participated in a march of support for Blacks in Tunisia in the capital city of Tunis. In other separate demonstrations, the Tunisian Anti-Fascist Front was one of the groups behind a march against racism with the slogan, “Abolish Fascism, Tunisia is an African Land,” that was attended by hundreds in Tunis. Tunisia’s large and influential General Labour Union also organized its own large-scale march against Saied on Saturday, too, and displayed anti-racism posters.
In the end, however, a Pan-African struggle that includes Arab countries can only succeed by dismantling the idea that blackness is not indigenous to North Africa. It was through the scholarship of the likes of Cheick Anta Diop that it was proved that the ancient Egyptians were black and African. Thus, these historical facts are important in rebuilding and ultimately uniting the continent.
Phethani Madzivhandila is a historian and activist based in South Africa