The Biden administration on Monday voiced concern over Tunisian President Kais Saied’s attempt to dissolve an independent judicial watchdog, a move that analysts say will further threaten democracy in what was once considered the Arab Spring’s sole success story.
"The United States is deeply concerned by Tunisian President Saied's calls to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council and the reported barring of employees from entering the Supreme Judicial Council," State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.
“The United States reiterates our calls for an accelerated political reform process in Tunisia that responds to the aspirations of the Tunisian people,” he said.
On Sunday, Saeid announced he was dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council, calling it “a thing of the past.” He accused the independent watchdog, which oversees the country’s judges, of bias and corruption.
The Supreme Judicial Council dismissed the “illegal” action, and said it would continue to carry out its duties. But on Monday, police in Tunisia locked the doors to the Supreme Judicial Council building, and reportedly prevented staff from entering.
Why it matters: Fears of democratic backsliding in Tunisia continue to grow, more than six months after Saied fired then-Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended the country’s elected parliament and announced he would rule by decree indefinitely. Saied’s actions initially had widespread public support, but his approval numbers are sinking as discontent with the economy and his handling of the coronavirus crisis grows.
What’s next: Last month, the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House foreign affairs panels wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to consider “conditioning certain aid on measurable reforms” in Tunisia.
On Monday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) called Saied’s latest political maneuver “another step backward for what was a developing democracy.”
Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it the “latest in a series of anti-democratic moves by Saied.”
The Biden administration has so far refrained from saying whether Saeid’s power grab in July constituted a coup, despite Congressional calls for a determination to be made public.