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An Italian Connection? Racism and Populism in Kais Saied’s Tunisia

Middle East & North Africa

Migration has long bound Italy and Tunisia. Depending on the moment in time, the twinned countries have alternated as sites of sanctuary and exodus. Just as Tunisians and those transiting through the country are today heading to Lampedusa to seek asylum or a better life, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw political refugees and economic migrants from Italy’s impoverished south take to the sea for Tunisian shores.  

What marks the present off from the past, certainly, is the reception that migrants receive as they traverse the borders of the paired nations. Those Italians who came to Tunisia in search of work, land, and escape from persecution many years ago were unobstructed by the local governing authorities. Settling permanently in many instances, they became fixtures of Tunisian life during the late colonial era. Contrarily, when economic migrants began pushing from Tunisia to the Mediterranean’s northern reaches starting in the 1980s, the human right to free movement had long since been disowned by the prevailing powers that be. Those searching for a better life at this juncture encountered a legal and security apparatus designed to stop them. In this manner, where the Mediterranean once held the promise of delivering an Italian peasant to a grander future, over the last ten years especially, it became a mass grave.

Marking the present off from the past as well are the political and ideological sinews presently connecting the halls of power in Rome and Tunis. Differences notwithstanding, the Italy of Giorgia Meloni and Tunisia of Kais Saïed are animated by a populist appeal grounded in the same foundations: racism and xenophobia. This has brought the countries into a strange and unique kind of alignment.

A Brief History of the Present

On June 6, 2023, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni made an official visit to Tunisia. The purpose of her trip was to discuss irregular immigration, an issue she had rode to power the previous fall and one that remained front and center for her government and party, the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy). In the preceding months, arrivals at Lampedusa had jumped considerably, and there were growing fears in Italy that Tunisia’s economic crisis and the impasse that had been reached in discussions with the IMF might soon prompt even larger movements of people. While in country, Meloni met with Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed at the presidential Palace of Carthage and his then Prime Minister Najla Bouden at the seat of government in the Kasbah of Tunis. 

Put on the back foot by Meloni’s boldness, the European Union ended up falling in line with the Italian agenda for Tunisia. Over the course of the next two months, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte accompanied Meloni on two journeys to Tunis, where the mission was to negotiate “enhanced cooperation on migration management.” In practice, this required convincing Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed—publicly resistant to the notion of Tunisia being deputized as a border guard of Europe—to stem sea crossings.

Carthage saw Europe’s sudden attentiveness as an opportunity. Indeed, aware of Brussels’ need for a deal, Saïed thought it possible to trade cooperation on migration for the lifting of the conditionalities that the IMF and the EU’s official lenders typically attached to financial assistance packages.[1] During his meetings with Meloni, Saïed made this objective plain, warning that creditor demands for austerity threatened to ignite an “explosive” situation and strain Tunisia’s social peace. The subtext was hard to miss: Impose pain on Tunisia and the numbers arriving on Lampedusa would spike. For Meloni, the terms Saïed was laying out were hardly a deal-breaker. Animated by the immigration question first and foremost, she was unbothered by the Tunisian President’s interest in bucking fiscal orthodoxies: Insofar as Tunisia had leaped Libya as the top departure point for irregular migrants and asylum seekers disembarking for Europe a year prior, the priority was to shut the Mediterranean gate by whatever means required.

To the surprise of some, the Italian and Tunisian leaders would evince a clear personal rapport as the negotiations process played out. This was despite Meloni’s penchant for dog whistles and barely hidden racism back home. Brushing that aside, Saïed, usually intransigent and combative in dealing with Europeans, displayed obvious warmth toward the Italian President. Appreciative of her “outspokenness”, he told her with a smile in front of a pack of journalists that “You are a woman that says out loud what others think about in silence.”[2]

Fellow Travelers in Ideology

As events before and after the press conference displayed, Saïed actually agrees with a great deal of what Meloni says aloud. Due to distinctions in context, the specific others he targets may be different from those Meloni takes aim at. Nevertheless, the same ideological impulses guide the two. As Meloni’s immigration policies are, Saïed’s repressive dealings with black African migrants—be they residents or those transiting through—is guided by racism, xenophobia, and conspiratorialism. And just as Meloni has injected this racism into her populist appeal, so too has Saied.

Interestingly, the two Presidents took advantage of a similar historical conjuncture in rising to power as well. Though themselves from different sociological backgrounds—Meloni of working class stock, Saïed decidedly not[3]—both proved deft in appealing to marginalized and downwardly mobile constituencies. This appeal was especially apparent for Saïed: Where Meloni actually campaigned on cutting state benefits to many of society’s most vulnerable, Saïed skillfully won a base by speaking to the struggling people of Tunisia’s hinterlands, those in the country’s north, central, and southwest especially. For each, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic also served as a catalyst par excellence. In Italy as in Tunisia, management of the virus had been disastrous: Tunisia lost 30,000 lives, the second highest total in Africa; Italy tallied one of the worst ledgers in the global north. Despite being President, Saïed deftly leveraged public frustrations over the government’s handling of the pandemic in conducting his self-coup in July 2021. Meloni, likewise, struck an appeal based on the Italian citizenry’s anger at lockdowns and intensifying economic stagnation to win the 2022 elections. Thereafter, both leaders would also display talent in attributing the causes of social suffering onto external (and occasionally internal) forces. Though the food shortages which emerged in Tunisia after Ukraine’s invasion of Russia stemmed from fiscal mismanagement, Saïed pinned them on sinister actors working to undermine his rule. Meloni, meanwhile, has routinely targeted Brussels as the source of Italy’s penury.

When it comes specifically to questions of migration, Meloni and Saïed read from the same rhetorical hymnal again. This is most apparent in their (aforementioned) conspiratorialism. In the case of Meloni, conspiratorialism is observed in her references to post-2016 schemes for altering Italy’s ethnic composition.[4] Conjuring a wedge issue from these fictions, she has proved capable of holding together a right-wing coalition and positioning herself as a guardian of “Italianness.” In the case of Saïed, conspiratorialism is present in a vernacularizing of the European far-right’s Great Replacement Theory: As Saïed has publicly proclaimed on more than one occasion, an Afrocentric plot organized by criminal enterprises and modeled on the Zionist project of the late 19th century was put into motion in the early 2000s with the goal of changing the demographic (read: Arab) makeup of Tunisia.[5] Such a tale was originally spun by the Tunisian Nationalist Party (TNP), an outfit that has been calling for the expulsion of black African migrants from Tunis and Sfax since 2018 and that connected with the President’s office in late 2022.

The Tunisian Nationalist Party’s (TNP) Dangerous Delusions

The Violent Consequence of Racist Populism

By defining the problem of migration in this manner, Meloni and Saïed set themselves up to propose similar fixes: Zero tolerance for what is deemed “illegal” immigration, and vigilance for the ethnic outsiders who have already managed to make a home inside their countries. Directing public anxieties against society’s most vulnerable whenever it is politically expedient, Saïed looks, in the eyes of sociologist Vincent Geisser, to be following in the populist wake of Meloni.[7]

When politically necessary, it is worth noting that the two leaders also indulge in not dissimilar attempts at hiding or selectively softening otherwise racist agendas. Of course, the wider current from which Meloni flows—the Lega Nord and Fratelli d’Italia—expressly associates itself with fascism and the racist legacies of Benito Mussolini, and as a general tendency, the Italian right does not shy away from sullying black people as invaders and rapists while accusing them of attempting to turn Europe black. Softening, in this context, can only go so far. That said, Meloni herself is careful to keep things subtle, lest she invite a frontal attack. In public, the Prime Minister’s racism is therefore often expressed in indirect terms, as when she suggested a black minister, Cécile Kyenge, was a representative of foreigners (The Italian right, for its part, has lifted up a model minority as evidence of its general decency: in 2018, they promoted the candidacy of Toni Iwobi, a naturalized citizen of Nigerian descent). In the same vein, when an overtly racist speech delivered in February 2023 got Kaïs Saïed into hot water at home and abroad, he would also seek self-preservation by muddying the waters. In a March meeting with Guinea-Bissau president Umaro Sissoco Embaló, Saïed pointed to his black African in-laws and African pride as evidence of non-racism. After racist mob violence began targeting black Africans and some black Tunisians, Saïed’s minister of foreign affairs Nabil Ammar proceeded to diminish the events and denigrate the very notion of Carthage articulating anti-black racism.

Sadly, Saïed’s combination of overt speechmaking and denialism seems to have facilitated the normalization of anti-black racism in Tunisia. Regardless of the spurious defenses they put forth, the President and his allies know well that their public warnings of plots to colonize Tunisia have legitimized vigilantism throughout the country: That civilian groups patrolled and harassed neighborhoods in Sfax and Tunis with large black African communities follows directly from Saïed’s words. Indeed, 2023 was the year that the promotion of a racist-populist discourse gave way to state-sanctioned anti-black violence.

Given their acute vulnerability, it should be unsurprising that black refugee women have suffered the worst from this development. For them, sexual assault, rape in particular, has become increasingly prevalent.[8] Human Rights Watch[9], Amnesty International[10], and Sweden’s Kvinna Till Kvinni Foundation have all documented this worrisome trend: The latter, which partners with Beity, a Tunisian organization whose mission is to welcome women victimized by gender-based violence, reported growing numbers of migrant women being “subjected to sexual harassment, sexual and gender-based violence, threats of rape” after Saïed’s February 2023 speech.[11] Last July, only a short while after Meloni’s visit to Tunis, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women also received information about a possible gang rape of black migrant women during the wave of violent attacks on the migrant communities of Sfax.[12] With the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission having documented but a few years ago how gender-based violence was used by the bygone dictatorial regime of Ben Ali to intimidate political dissidents, the suffering of these women shows just how far the 2011 revolution has been rolled back.


Since winning the Presidency in 2019 and assuming what amounted to unchecked power in 2021, Kaïs Saïed has derived legitimacy from populist appeals of different kinds. As his response to Israel’s war on Gaza brings into the starkest of reliefs, these appeals often lack substance: Publicly denounce the genocide or not, Saïed opted against joining South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice and has otherwise taken no meaningful action in support of Gaza apart from offering a handful of persons medical treatment in Tunis. 

Tragically, there is substance to Saïed’s flirtations with racism. Sure, he might perform solidarity with the African continent in proclaiming “Africa belongs to Africans” at the sixth European Union-African Union Summit. When it comes to Tunisia, however, it is clear that belonging does not mean brotherhood, particularly for black Africans. The dropping of 1200 black African at the desert border with Libya—where more than two dozen would die of thirst and hunger—made the truth of this unambiguous. So too have his attempts at appropriating Tunisia’s anti-discrimination law and the horrifying speech of February 2023. Like Italy’s Giorgia Meloni to his north, Kais Saïed traffics in a racism-infused form of populism to buttress his rule. As these two partners may shape the future of migration in the Mediterranean, that should give us all immense pause.

[1] Luca Barana and Asli Selin Okyay, “Shaking hands with Saied’s Tunisia: The paradoxes and trade-offs facing the EU”, Commentary, Istituto Affari Internazionali, August 5, 2023).

[2] Ghaya ben Mbarek, “Italian PM visits Tunisia with hopes trip will help unlock $1.9bn IMF Loan”, The National, June 6, 2023.

[3] Saïed was employed as a constitutional law university professor prior to contesting for office. Though this translated to a modest, middle-class life, he is of a family with lineage in the old Ottoman bureaucracy.

[4] Barbi Latza Nadeau, “Femme Fascista”, World Policy Journal 35:2 (2018).

[5] Monica Marks, “Tunisia’s President gives life to a Zionism conspiracy theory”, New Lines Magazine, March 21, 2023.

[6] Tunisian Nationalist Party (Al Hizb Al qawmi Attounsi), Facebook Page (Accessed January 11, 2024).

[7] Charlotte Lalanne, “Tunisie : derrière la dérive raciste de Saied, l’ombre de Giorgia Meloni”, L’Express, March 6, 2023.

[8] Lilia Blaise, “Racism in Tunisia: If I had known, I never would have come live here”, Le Monde Afrique, March 16, 2023.

[9] Human Rights Watch, “Tunisia: No safe haven for black African migrants, refugees”, Dispatch, July 19, 2023.

[10] Amnesty International, “Tunisia: President’s racist speech incites a wave of violence against Black Africans”, News, March 10, 2023.

[11] Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation, “Migrant women amongst those vulnerable”, Commentary, May 3, 2023.

[12] Lilia Blaise, “Tunisie : les associations feministes débordées par les demandes de migrantes subsahariennes”, Radio France Internationale, (August 13, 2023).