WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats say Tunisian President Kais Saied’s inflammatory rhetoric against migrants and a tougher crackdown on his perceived critics raise “serious concerns” about US relations with Tunisia.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday, 20 House Democrats led by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (DN.Y.) expressed their concern about what they described it as “a major acceleration in Tunisia’s autocratic consolidation.”
Under Saeid’s watch, Tunisian authorities have carried out a wave of politically motivated arrests since mid-February targeting activists, business leaders, journalists and prominent opposition figures.
The campaign of arrests is among the biggest since July 2021, when Saied froze parliament, sacked his prime minister and took broad executive powers in a dramatic power grab that his critics labeled a coup. He later pushed through a new constitution that critics say dismantles hard-won democratic gains in Tunisia, once considered the only success story of the Arab Spring.
The Democratic lawmakers expressed particular concern about Tunisian authorities charging individuals with “conspiracy against the security of the state” and “plotting to overthrow the government” for their meetings with US diplomats in Tunisia, one of whom was cited in leaking legal documents. to the Tunisian press. They also cite a pattern of arrests in violation of due process, use of excessive force and detainees being denied family contact for 48 hours.
“These alarming developments and Tunisia’s continued autocratic consolidation not only threaten the country’s stability in a period of economic insecurity, they raise serious concerns about the future of US-Tunisia relations,” the letter read.
The lawmakers also condemned Saied’s “controversial racist and xenophobic statements”, referring to his claim on February 21 that undocumented sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia were part of a conspiracy to change the country’s demographic composition. Authorities stepped up their arrests of undocumented migrants, prompting others to flee the country. On Monday, the Tunisian coast guard said at least 29 migrants died trying to reach Italy after their boats sank off the Tunisian coast.
Monitoring groups have also recorded an uptick in racist attacks by ordinary citizens since Saied’s speech, which the letter from Congress said “seemed aimed at sowing division and creating scapegoats for the country’s economic crisis at a time when his policies were very popular. “
Saied’s crackdown comes amid a deepening economic crisis in Tunisia, where food prices are rising, unemployment is rising and public debt is now more than 80% of its gross domestic product.
In its budget request for fiscal year 2024, the State Department proposed significant cuts to Tunisia’s annual economic aid that a spokesman said were designed to “reflect the United States’ continuing concern about the weakening of democratic institutions.”
The proposed budget calls for only a small reduction in US security assistance to Tunisia. House Democrats’ letter urged the Biden administration to ensure that US aid to Tunisia “does not strengthen the hand of those, including the internal security services, who have exacerbated repression and authoritarianism.”
Despite Tunisia’s economic woes, Saied has yet to sign off on a $1.9 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund that was first agreed last October amid fears the country could default on its debt. In a hearing in the Senate last week, Blinken urged Tunisia to go ahead with the IMF agreement, and said “there is a risk that the economy will fall off the deep end.”