Two years after the taking of power that gave Kais Saied increasing powers over the countries, also through deep constitutional changes, the situation in Tunisia remains tense. The deteriorating socio-economic conditions still left unaddressed, favoured an apparently mainstream political discourse singling out Sub-Saharan migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, perceived as potentially outnumbering the local population.
On the domestic front, tensions have unfortunately reached a breaking point, showing the fault lines along which the social fabric of Tunisia, under constant financial pressures, is dividing day by day. The epicentre has been the port city of Sfax, which turned into a tinderbox when on the 3rd of July 2023 a Tunisian national was killed in clashes that were going on for a few weeks between locals and migrants.
The ensuing violence against Sub-Saharan nationals, who usually gather in large numbers in Sfax with the hope to reach Europe by boat, has been unprecedented, driving hundreds of migrants out of the city and into the buffer zone of Ben Guerdane. The migrants were left stranded in the no man’s land along the border with Algeria and Libya in critical conditions and with difficult prospects even if they could cross the respective borders
Regrettably just a few days before the incidents in Sfax, the President had expressed his displeasure on the presence of very numerous Sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia. At the same time, while recalling the perceived risk of a demographic change, Saied warned that Tunisia would not act as a country of transit or destination for undocumented migrants heading to the norther shore of the Mediterranean. Obviously this declaration is a reversal of a previous preliminary agreement in early June with the EU Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen, the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the Dutch premier Mark Rutte, featuring a pledged €1 billion aid package to rescue Tunisia’s finances.
In a tough spot during a year in which arrivals and deaths along the Central Mediterranean Route have increased exponentially, the troika swiftly came back to Tunis to sign a strategic and comprehensive partnership. Between the lines of the Memorandum of Understanding, signed on the 16th of July, emerges the quid pro quo between migration and financial assistance. The immediate disbursement of €112 million for border management, anti-smuggling, return and addressing the root causes of migration represents the first step to replicate the externalisation policy that the EU has already adopted regarding the Balkan Route.
Complicating further the situation, the MoU’s funding is conditional on the approval by Tunis of the IMF financial support, on which Brussels is pushing hard despite Saied’s reluctance. It may be possible that the Tunisian President will persist in his refusal, further aggravating the country’s economic predicament.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region