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Biden's budget proposal would slash military aid to Tunisia

Tunisia's president further cemented his hold on power this week as US lawmakers urged the Biden administration to scrutinize its security aid to the country.

The Biden administration has proposed cutting US military aid to Tunisia by nearly half as the North African country’s leadership continues on the path toward authoritarianism.                          

Washington’s annual budget released earlier this week calls for $61 million in military and security aid to Tunisia next year, down from $112 million requested for this year.

The budget also calls for reducing State Department economic aid to Tunisia by $40 million, a nearly 50% reduction from this year's request. The proposed cuts come as the cash-strapped government in Tunis is exploring the possibility of a bailout with the IMF.

“The United States seeks to continue support to the Tunisian people and encourage the government’s return to constitutional governance,” a State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor via email. “Reductions in US economic and security assistance, in comparison to prior year requests, reflect our significant concerns over continuing democratic backsliding.” 

Why it Matters: The Biden administration is signaling that President Kais Saied and his allies are taking Tunisia’s democracy in the wrong direction.

Tunisia’s government had been hailed as the sole representative democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

But last July, Saied suspended parliament, dismissed the government and claimed executive powers amid widespread street protests over economic and healthcare crises related to COVID-19. The move was criticized by opponents as a political coup, but the president has so far retained moderate public support despite a number of moves by security forces to suppress dissent.

Saied, a former top constitutional law scholar, has insisted the measures are temporary and has vowed to hold a nationwide referendum on a new constitution this July, with parliamentary elections promised for December 17.

  • In a surprise move on Wednesday, Saied issued a decree dissolving parliament after lawmakers met virtually and voted to approve a bill that would nullify his executive decrees.

  • Saied declared the online session, which was called by parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi, illegal.

  • Ghannouchi, the head of the opposition Islamist Ennahda Party, rejected the president’s constitutional right to dismiss the legislature in an interview with the AFP.

  • Saied on Friday rebuffed calls to hold new parliamentary elections within three months, though the country’s 2014 constitution mandates new elections following a dissolution of parliament.

The Tunisian president’s actions are likely to further sour the mood among US lawmakers, who earlier this week urged the Biden administration to review its security aid to Tunisia based on democratic regression.

  • State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday that the administration is “deeply concerned by the Tunisian president’s decision to unilaterally dissolve the parliament, and by reports that Tunisian authorities are considering legal measures against members of the parliament.”

  • Just last week the Biden administration’s top official for democracy and human rights, Uzra Zeya, met with top officials in Tunis and expressed concern over the country’s political trajectory, according to the State Department.

Washington has been one of Tunisia’s largest foreign backers since the 2011 revolution, signing a 10-year roadmap for defense cooperation in 2020 as strategic rival Russia made inroads with Wagner mercenaries in neighboring Libya.

  • If enacted, the cuts would mean Saied’s government loses out on some $40 million in aid to buy US military hardware as well as more than $10 million in funds to support policing and counter-narcotics work.

  • The proposal requires congressional approval, though the administration retains some authority to override the decision. A US official speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor the administration is willing to working with lawmakers on the issue.

  • This year’s omnibus spending bill, which was signed into law earlier this month, also allows the administration flexibility in disbursing this year’s remaining aid to Tunisia based on democracy and human rights improvements, a Congressional aide told Al-Monitor.

What’s Next: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is required to submit a report to Congress on the status of Tunisia’s democracy by mid-June.

Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specializing in Libya and North Africa, said the proposed aid cuts amount to little more than a slap on the wrist.

“In terms of actual pain inflicted, it will barely be noticed by Saied,” Harchaoui told Al-Monitor.

The Tunisian president's behavior, Harchaoui said, "is unlikely to be altered by this news. Meanwhile, very valid efforts and projects will suffer regrettably."

The State Department spokesperson said the administration intends to direct much of the remaining funds to support Tunisian “civil society, promote government accountability, reduce economic impediments to growth and improve access to higher education.”

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