Tunisian leader sparks outrage by claiming ‘Zionist movement’ behind naming of storm that battered Libya

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Tunisian leader Kais Saied has claimed that the “Zionist movement” was behind the naming of Storm Daniel, which brought on massive floods that killed thousands of people in Libya last week, prompting outrage and accusations of antisemitism.

“Has no one questioned why it was called so? Who is Daniel? He is a Hebrew prophet,” said the 65-year-old president in a nearly hour-long monologue at a cabinet meeting on Monday. “Why did they name the storm Daniel? Because the Zionist movement has penetrated, has made it to the core of the mind and thinking… From Abraham to Daniel, it is clear.”

Swaths of the Mediterranean region have been lashed by Storm Daniel this month. The storm was the result of a very strong low-pressure system that became a “medicane” – a relatively rare type of storm with similar characteristics to hurricanes and typhoons which can bring dangerous rainfall and flooding.

The storm was named Daniel by the national meteorological services in southeast Europe, and formed on September 5, affecting Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and finally Libya – which witnessed the worst devastation and highest death toll.

Storm names are picked from a list compiled by the United Nations World Meteorological Organization committee. The names are often arranged alphabetically, and they vary by region as they are meant to be familiar to the people in each impacted area.

The president’s comments sparked outrage on social media. Some dismissed his speech as a misinformed rant, noting that the biblical figure Daniel is also revered as a prophet by Muslims.

Others denounced Saied’s comments as antisemitic.

Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi who focuses on Tunisia, said that Saied’s comments were part of a pattern of “scapegoating and victimizing” different groups, including Black migrants and members of the opposition.

In the cabinet meeting, Saied said that his “issue is not with Jews” but with the “international Zionist movement.”

Tunisia is home to between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews, down from nearly 100,000 in the 1940s, according to Minority Rights Group International. Around one third of Tunisian Jews live in the capital Tunis, while the remainder are in Djerba, an island off the coast of the country.

A deadly attack at the synagogue on Djerba island earlier this year led Saied to pledge safety for all Jews in the country.

The president is no stranger to controversy and has been accused of peddling racism in the past. This year, Saied decried the incompatibility of Black African “values” with those of Tunisians, saying his grandfather “used to buy and sell them.” He also said that Black migration to the country was a plot to change the racial makeup of the country.

Saied embarked on a major power grab in 2021, ousting the government, dissolving parliament, and deciding to rule by decree. Last year, he pushed through a new constitution that only cemented his one-man rule.

In his speech, Saied also denied being racist against Africans, saying “we are proud of being African.” He attributed accusations of racism against him as “part of the international Zionist movement.”

He also attacked other Arab countries’ normalization deals with Israel, calling them “high treason.”

Marks said that Tunisia’s dwindling Jewish community is alarmed by Saied’s conspiratorial rhetoric, which she says represents an “extreme Arab nationalist minority.” His comments, she said, sharpen the antisemitic discourse “in new and dangerous ways.”

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