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World Bank halts talks with Tunisia over president's 'racist' remarks

World Bank’s decision could put additional pressure on Kais Saied, whose government is in talks with IMF over stalled $1.9bn bailout
People take part in a demonstration in Tunis, demanding the release of prominent figures opposed to the president, on 5 March 2023(AFP)

The World Bank is suspending its work with Tunisia after African migrants were attacked in the country, following a xenophobic speech by Tunisian President Kais Saied at the end of February.

The bank's outgoing president, David Malpass, said Saied's tirade had triggered "racially motivated harassment and even violence" and that the institution had postponed a planned meeting with Tunisia until further notice while it assesses the situation, the AFP reported.

In a speech last month that was widely denounced as racist, Saied said “there has been a criminal plan since the beginning of the century to change the demographic structure of Tunisia and there are parties that received large sums of money after 2011 for the settlement of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa”. 

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On Monday, the US also weighed into Saied's comments. 

“As you heard from the World Bank we too are deeply concerned by President Saied's remarks regarding migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Tunisia and reports of arbitrary arrests of migrants in recent weeks," US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said. 

"We urge Tunisian authorities to meet their obligations under international law to protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants," he added. 

The speech prompted a flurry of new hate speech and conspiracy theories about African migrants in Tunisia, with anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiments being spread across Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, Middle East Eye previously reported.

Tunisia has been engulfed in crises since July 2021, when Saied unilaterally suspended parliament and dissolved the government in what many have called a "constitutional coup". He subsequently ruled by decree, before pushing through a new constitution that enshrined his one-man rule.

The World Bank’s decision could put additional pressure on Saied, whose government is in talks with the IMF over a stalled $1.9bn bailout. Although the World Bank and IMF are separate entities, they work together in close cooperation.

His comments on Black migrants come as Tunisia’s economy implodes, with the country wracked by high inflation and shortages of basic commodities from fuel to cooking oil, a crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

Saied has also become more bellicose with western officials. Last month he ordered the expulsion of Esther Lynch, Europe's top trade union official, over a speech his office called "blatant interference" in the country's internal affairs. 

Last year, Tunisia held parliamentary elections that rights groups and Saied’s political opponents widely labelled a sham. Just 11 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in an election marked by widespread apathy and where political parties were banned from participating.

Since then, Saied has overseen a crackdown on opponents. Authorities have detained several government critics, including politicians, journalists and trade union figures. 

There are mounting signs of discontent. On Sunday, demonstrators defied an official protest ban to rally against Saied in the capital. They broke through a police barrier to reach the city centre, holding up national flags and posters of recently arrested figures.

Those protests came on the back of a demonstration against Saied organised by the powerful UGTT labour union on Saturday. Thousands of people turned out.

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