Tunisia: the arrest of anti-racist activist Saadia Mosbah revives the fears of the black community

" I am still shocked

Tunisia: the arrest of anti-racist activist Saadia Mosbah revives the fears of the black community

" I am still shocked. Even under the Ben Ali dictatorship, they did not dare to do that,” confides Huda Mzioudet, a Tunisian anti-racist researcher and activist, clearly moved. Saadia Mosbah, emblematic president of the Mnemty association (“my dream”), committed against racial discrimination in Tunisia, was arrested on Monday, May 6, and placed in police custody for a period of five days, in accordance with the law on the fight against terrorism and money laundering.

Arrested the same day, Zied Rouine, director of projects for the association, was released on Tuesday. “They questioned us about our funding and our activities and wanted to identify the beneficiaries,” he declared a few hours after his release, recalling that since the beginning of May, several members of Mnemty have been the target of a harassment campaign and defamation on social networks. The organization is notably accused of participating in a plot aimed at facilitating the settlement of sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia. “There is no place for associations that could replace the State,” President Kaïs Saïed said on Monday, describing the leaders of these associations as “traitors” and “agents”.

A leading figure in the fight against racism in Tunisia, Saadia Mosbah, 64, was born in Bab Souika, a district of Tunis. His father was from the governorate of Gabès (south). “My ancestors on my father’s side come from Timbuktu, Mali,” she confided in 2015 to HuffPost Maghreb. During her more than thirty years of career as a flight attendant and then cabin manager for the national airline Tunisair, she was regularly confronted with racism from passengers and her colleagues. “In Tunisia, it’s something silent, creeping,” she explained.

His brother, the famous singer Slah Mosbah, and his sister, Affet Mosbah, also denounced discrimination under the Ben Ali regime. At that time, Saadia Mosbah had tried twice to launch her association, but she encountered refusal from the authorities, who denied the existence of racial discrimination. “The Mosbah family spoke about racism long before the revolution, at a time when everyone was afraid to speak,” recalls Huda Mzioudet, who met the president of Mnemty for the first time in April 2011, during a program on Radio Tunis international channel (RTCI) dedicated to racism. At the time, speech was gradually becoming freer thanks to the revolution.

Descendants of slaves

Mnemty was born in 2013 to fight against racial discrimination and denounce the low representation in institutions of black Tunisians, a minority accounting for around 15% of the population and made up mainly of descendants of slaves. But two years after the launch of the association, an altercation pitted Saadia Mosbah against a gas station attendant from Tunis. “I’m not going to inflate the tires of a wusif” (black maid), objects the gas station attendant. The verbal argument degenerated into physical aggression, the activist and her son finding themselves beaten up by three gas station attendants.

But Saadia Mosbah does not give up. His commitment paves the way for the adoption by the Assembly of People's Representatives (ARP) of a historic law against racial discrimination on October 23, 2018 – a first in the Arab world. With this text, racist remarks are now punishable by a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of up to 1,000 dinars (297 euros). The sanction is heavier – up to three years in prison and a fine of 5,000 dinars – for “incitement to hatred”, “racist threats”, “the dissemination and apology of racism”, “ creation” or “participation in an organization clearly and repeatedly supporting discrimination”.

This legislative breakthrough earned Saadia Mosbah a certain notoriety abroad. The international press often quotes her and, in August 2023 in Washington, she received an award from Antony Blinken, the American Secretary of State, crowning her fight against racism.

However, this progress will be hampered by the new migratory context which sees thousands of sub-Saharan Africans blocked in Tunisia by restrictive access policies to Europe. The greater visibility of these migrants in the country's cities, in Sfax in particular, is causing violent reactions. Saadia Mosbah and other anti-racist activists are regularly the subject of defamatory campaigns hostile to the presence of sub-Saharan blacks in the territory, accusing them of being at the origin.

“No one is spared”

These accusations of conspiracy gained momentum at the end of 2022, when the Tunisian Nationalist Party, a small group with xenophobic ideas, launched a campaign against the presence of sub-Saharan migrants, relying on far-right theories such as that of the “great replacement ". In February 2023, President Kaïs Saïed took up this ideology, evoking the existence of a “criminal plan to change the demographic composition” of the country and asserting that “certain individuals received large sums of money to grant residency to sub-Saharan migrants”.

The head of state's speech led to a series of attacks and expulsions of sub-Saharans, several thousand of them being moved to the Algerian and Libyan borders, in the middle of the desert. “The regime's modus operandi is always the same: launching campaigns on social networks before striking hard,” denounces Sana Ben Achour, professor of public law and feminist activist, for whom the regime does not only target sub-Saharan migrants, but also black Tunisians and the civil society actors who support them. “Tunisia has become a fascist country, no one is spared,” she says.

Encouraged at the highest level of the State, the anti-migrant climate affects, in turn, black Tunisians. After the 2018 law, the disillusionment is cruel. “Recent events have set us back 177 steps, or as many years since the abolition of slavery and servitude in Tunisia. As if they had canceled and erased everything that had been accomplished before,” Sana Ben Achour declared in April 2023 to the legal journal The Legal Agenda: “The scars and impacts of these campaigns will only be erased after decades. It is very difficult for Black people to overcome the magnitude of the shock they experienced, as well as for non-Black people who helped the victims and witnessed the violations suffered. »

In the grip of deep depression for more than a year, Huda Mzioudet confirms this assessment: “I have never felt so alienated, so uprooted. I still have the Tunisian flag in my room, but Tunisia doesn't like us. » The arrest of Saadia Mosbah further rekindled her fears: "I feel helpless, but I hope that Tunisians who have a minimum of common sense will dissociate themselves from this regime, because after blacks, others categories will be targeted. This regime has declared war on its own people, but we will not give in, we are no longer afraid. »