A group of House Democrats expressed concern over Tunisian President Kais Saied’s crackdown on perceived opponents and his “racist and xenophobic” comments about sub-Saharan African migrants.
In a letter sent to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, 20 Democratic members of Congress said they were concerned about the “great acceleration” in the change of the autocracy in Tunisia and warned that Saied’s actions are “a cause of great concern ” for US-Tunisia relations.
“Dissident voices continue to be arrested or summoned for questioning on an almost daily basis,” said the letter led by Gregory Meeks, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The administration should make clear that Said’s crackdown undermines confidence in the rule of law that is essential for a successful US-Tunisia relationship and international monetary support that could benefit the Tunisian people and alleviate economic hardship.”
He added that American lawmakers were alarmed by reports that Tunisia was charging individuals with “conspiracy against the security of the state” and “plotting to overthrow the government” for meeting with US diplomats.
Tunisia has been mired in political and economic crises since July 2021, when Saied unilaterally suspended parliament and dissolved the government in what many described as a “constitutional coup”.
In May of that year, Middle East Eye revealed that a secret document was being circulated suggesting that Saied invoke Article 80 of the constitution and seize control of the country, citing emergency powers.
In late July, Saied did just that, claiming that the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s deteriorating economic situation required him to freeze parliament and dismiss the government, as well as launch an anti-corruption campaign.
As well as freezing parliament, he enacted a number of controversial measures, including shutting down the country’s independent anti-corruption body and setting aside the national electoral authority.
‘Department of seed’
In a letter on Tuesday, the US lawmakers also pointed out Saied’s recent racist remarks in which he called migrants from sub-Saharan Africa “unacceptable violence, crimes and acts”.
“Spurred by Saied’s rhetoric, documented and undocumented migrants have been arbitrarily arrested by the security services, officers have arrested youth from kindergartens, evicted individuals from their homes, and entire neighborhoods have been raided,” the letter said.
The legislators added that the statements seemed to be “aimed at creating divisiveness and creating scapegoats for the country’s economic crisis at a time when there was growing popular opposition to his policies”.
US lawmakers have repeatedly criticized Said’s “democratic backsliding” since taking power, and urged the White House to “ensure that any US foreign aid to Tunisia supports comprehensive, democratic governance reform and the rule of law.” .
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The Biden administration has begun cutting some sources of aid to Tunisia in its 2023 and 2024 budgets, but Senator Chris Murphy criticized the lack of military aid cuts during a recent Senate hearing.
“It seems like your budget is a little bit of a middle ground and maybe that’s where you want to be, cutting economic funding, maintaining military funding, but then opening up the possibility of additional military funding if which is Tunisia, quote ‘which shows signs of returning to democratic governance,” said Murphy to Blinken.
“I think they are similar [the Tunisian leadership] They’ve made their decision, and I think our funding and policy should reflect that.”
Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said that although he agreed with the spirit of the legislators’ letter, the question remained of what the US was willing to do to protect the values of Tunisian democracy.
“Giving money or loans to this regime at this point, after the complete destruction of the democratic process, without imposing political and economic conditions, would be equivalent to supporting a dictatorship and gross violations of human rights in Tunisia, ” Masmoudi told MEE.
“This would be very tragic, not only for Tunisia, but indeed for the region and the whole world, and it would send a dangerous message to all potential dictators that it is okay to coup a do it against the rule of law and against democracy, and you would still receive recognition and economic and military support from the US, the IMF, and the international community.”
The US designated Tunisia as a “Major non-NATO Ally” after the country’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011, and Washington has dramatically increased bilateral aid to the country over the past 12 years.