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Ambivalent Africanism? Challenging anti-black racism in Tunisia

Leila Tayeb looks at anti-black, anti-migrant sentiment in Tunisia and north African constructions of ‘whiteness’

5 to 6 minute read

Figures protest holding Arabic signs against a backdrop of red, black and green

In February 2023, Tunisian president Kais Saied warned of ‘African hordes’ bringing ‘demographic change’ that would render Tunisia ‘just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations’. A north African expression of white supremacy underpins Saied’s rhetoric: African, Arab, and Islamic are all racialised terms here.

Saied’s racist remarks are not an anomaly. Recently, Tunisia has seen mob violence against black migrants and citizens, the forced displacement of sub-Saharan Africans to the Tunisian-Libyan border and the signing of a new ‘strategic partnership’ to combat undocumented migration to the EU. 

There are a number of factors driving this violence, including Tunisia’s dire economic situation, in which minorities and migrants are easy scapegoats. But it is also essential to understand local antiblack racism and constructions of whiteness in the country and region.

Importantly, there were local anti-racism protests in response to Saied’s remarks. There is wider anger against the president, who in 2021 suspended and later dissolved parliament and has been arresting opponents ever since. But the protests were also part of longer-term efforts to acknowledge and resist a broader problem of anti-black racism. 

Black Tunisians comprise at least a tenth of the population and have long complained of social and economic marginalisation, as well as being unrepresented in public or symbolic spaces. These underexamined racial hierarchies must be accounted for in any consideration of Tunisian, broader north African and African commitments to a genuine liberatory pan-continentalism that offers a path to social transformation and freedom.

Aspirational whiteness

In Europe, north Africans are distinctly constructed as not white. But in north Africa, as in other postcolonial contexts, whiteness also takes on local meanings. These constructions of whiteness, shaped by the local and global, do not map identically onto European colonial constructions, but they do interact with them.

They are shaped by local histories of racialised enslavement via the trans-Saharan slave trade, which historically was not taught in the Tunisian national syllabus, and shifting discourses around Arabness and Amazighness as well as whiteness.

It is essential to confront the racial and economic structures that underpin north African societies

Structural attachments to whiteness, white supremacy and Arab- Islamic supremacy are not, then, new. They were evident in the ambivalence of some north African approaches to pan-Africanism – for example, in Egypt – even when pan-Africanism was at its most vibrant.

Today, however, such attachments are taking new forms. It’s an anxious moment in which constructions of whiteness are latched onto as a route to social and economic capital. This ‘aspirational whiteness’ assumes it is possible to ‘achieve’ whiteness and, in doing so, attain a better life.

In reality, it is always contingent, temporary and relational. It isn’t European whiteness, which is more tangible globally, meaning that attachments to north African whiteness tend to be anxious ones, blending colourism and class discrimination to approximate a perceived position of superiority to others in the global south.

North Africans are African

Historically, north African states and leaders, including most famously Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, Tunisia under Habib Bourguiba and Algeria under Houari Boumediene, were active proponents of pan- Africanist projects. Beyond state politics, anti-colonial movements, made up of artists, intellectuals, and activists have envisioned and articulated alternative African futures. 

The Pan-African Cultural Festival that took place in Algiers in July 1969, for example, reflected how north Africa states were a space of global connections, including for black American and Caribbean artists to escape white supremacy and connect to other anti-colonial spaces.

It is important to note, however, that especially in the cases of statesmen and political leaders, being a proponent of pan-Africanism does not inherently equate to anti-racism; it is possible to be simultaneously a pan-Africanist and a white-Arab supremacist.

One need only look to the late Libyan head of state Gaddafi, who famously pushed for a United States of Africa while at the same time using anti-black slurs to describe other African leaders. In a moment not dissimilar to Saied’s, Gaddafi called for EU funding so that Libya could prevent the ‘threat’ he described of Europe becoming ‘no longer European, and even black’.

There is a coexistence of a superficial north African pan-Africanism and anti-blackness seen in how blackness is repeatedly constructed as non-indigenous to north Africa. This is also co-constructed with the ‘naturalised’ geographic division of the Sahara desert that supposedly splits ‘north’ and ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa.

A superficial, anti-black north African pan-Africanism is co-constructed with the ‘naturalised’ geographic division of the Sahara desert that supposedly splits ‘north’ and ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa

We see it frequently, for example, in the practice among many in north Africa of referring to black (im)migrants as ‘Africans’ without any greater specificity, both homogenising people of varied origins and simultaneously robbing black north Africans of a claim to native national belonging.

This was visible when Saied doubled down on his anti-migrant rhetoric in a subsequent press conference. Standing alongside the Guinea-Bissau president, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, Saied said the ‘unacceptable’ problem was the ‘malicious tongues’ interpreting his words as racist.

Embaló responded, ‘I wouldn’t believe that you, the president of Tunisia, the country of [Habib] Bourguiba [first president of Tunisia], could be xenophobic or racist. You yourself are African.’ Saied’s response came quickly: ‘I am African and I am proud to be’.


The tension between Embaló and Saied points to the ambivalence in the inclusion of north Africa in Africa. Does African mean black? Does it mean, as Embaló intimates, incapable of racism? How can Saied’s Africanness be both a clear fact and bear clarifying? It is the affective force of whiteness as aspiration that structures this ambivalence.

A young Tunisian man speaking to Al Jazeera in July exemplifies this aspirational force. He gives his name as ‘Zidan Chouchen’, a racialised joke with which he distances himself from his black co-nationals.

This 17-year-old is saving to cross to Europe by boat but sees himself as better than sub-Saharan Africans who come to Tunisia. ‘For us, when we go to Europe we have an object: to rent a house and build a new life. For them, when they come here, they just want to start fights, take money and act like gangsters.’

Broadly xenophobic, yes, but these ideas are more specifically legible through anxious claims to whiteness that are both global in reach and rooted in deeply local vernaculars.

Some stress that an end to Saied’s regime is a necessary first step. But it is also essential to confront the racial and economic structures that underpin north African societies. It is only by doing so that the radical promise of pan-Africanism and north Africa’s role within it can be achieved.

This article first appeared in Issue #241 Pan-Africanism. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Leila Tayeb is an assistant professor at Northwestern University, Qatar, and co-editor at Lamma: A Journal of Libyan Studies

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