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Tunisian leader Kais Saied has claimed that the “Zionist movement” was behind the naming of Storm Daniel, which caused massive flooding that killed thousands of people in Libya last week, sparking outrage and accusations of anti-Semitism.
“Has no one asked why it was called that? Who is Daniel? He is a Hebrew prophet,” the 65-year-old president said 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, it has reached the center of the mind and thought… From Abraham to Daniel, it is clear.”
This month Storm Daniel has hit large areas of the Mediterranean region. The storm was the result of a very strong low pressure system that became a “medicine,” a relatively rare type of storm with characteristics similar to hurricanes and typhoons that can cause dangerous rain and flooding.
The storm, named Daniel by the national meteorological services of southeastern Europe, formed on September 5 and affected Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and, finally, Libya, which suffered the worst devastation and the highest death toll.
Storm names are chosen from a list compiled by the United Nations World Meteorological Organization committee. The names are usually arranged alphabetically and vary by region, as they are intended to be familiar to people in each affected area.
The president’s comments sparked outrage on social media. Some dismissed his speech as an ill-informed rant, pointing out that the biblical figure Daniel is also revered as a prophet by Muslims.
Others denounced Saied’s comments as anti-Semitic.
Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University in Abu Dhabi who specializes in Tunisia, said Saied’s comments were part of a pattern of “scapegoating and victimizing” different groups, including black immigrants and members of the opposition.
At the cabinet meeting, Saied said his “problem is not with the Jews” but with the “international Zionist movement.”
Tunisia is home to between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews, up from nearly 100,000 in the 1940s, according to Minority Rights Group International. About a third of Tunisian Jews live in the capital, Tunis, while the rest live on Djerba, an island off the country’s coast.
A deadly attack on the synagogue on the island of Djerba earlier this year led Saied to promise security 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 denounced the incompatibility of black African “values” with those of Tunisians, saying that 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, overthrowing the government, dissolving parliament and deciding to rule by decree. Last year, he pushed for a new constitution that only consolidated his one-man rule.
In his speech, Saied also denied being racist against Africans, saying “we are proud to be Africans.” He attributed the accusations of racism against him as “part of the international Zionist movement.”
He also attacked other Arab countries’ normalization agreements with Israel, calling them “high treason.”
Marks said Tunisia’s dwindling Jewish community is alarmed by the conspiratorial rhetoric of Saied, who she says represents an “extreme Arab nationalist minority.” Her comments, she said, sharpen anti-Semitic discourse “in new and dangerous ways.”