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The Takeaway: Tunisia's Saied visits US, days before controversial elections

Plus, Iran is expelled from a United Nations women's rights body and Morocco's underdog team is knocked out of the World Cup.
Tunisian demonstrators take part in a rally against President Kais Saied, called for by the opposition "National Salvation Front" coalition, in the capital Tunis, on December 10, 2022. (Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images)

With mere days to go before Tunisia holds elections that critics say will further cement President Kais Saied’s dramatic power grab, the embattled Tunisian leader on Wednesday sat face to face with senior US officials in Washington alarmed by his country’s democratic backslide.

Saied met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the US-Africa Leaders Summit, a three-day gathering of dozens of African leaders aimed at boosting US ties with the continent. In remarks prior to their closed meeting, Saied defended what many have described as a coup, saying he had “no other alternative but to save the Tunisian nation” when he froze the elected parliament in July 2021 and sacked his prime minister. 

Voter apathy is running high ahead of Saturday's elections to replace the legislative body dissolved by Saied. “Unlike previous rounds, banners, slogans, and photos of candidates are not draping the sides of buildings or cluttering the streets this year,” Mohamed Ali Ltifi reports for us from Tunis.

Following a widely boycotted referendum, Tunisia approved a new constitution in July that critics say reverses the many hard-won democratic gains in the country that birthed the Arab Spring. 

The elections on Saturday — which fall on the anniversary of fruit and vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked the Tunisian revolution — come after Saied took control of the country's formerly independent election commission. 

“These are sham elections for a Potemkin parliament that he can dissolve at any moment with zero checks and balances,” Monica Marks, a Tunisia expert and professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, told Al-Monitor.  

Tunisia’s approaching elections were high on the agenda in Wednesday’s Blinken-Saied meeting. Per the State Department, Blinken raised the importance of “free and fair elections,” as well as “inclusive reforms to strengthen democratic checks and balances.” 

A Tunisian official who was present told Al-Monitor that Saied assured the Americans that “the Tunisian people will express themselves freely and openly” on Saturday, adding that “Tunisia is and will remain a democracy.” 

Saied’s measures, which he described as necessary to fix a corrupt system, initially had widespread public support. But his job approval numbers in Tunisia have slipped amid discontent over the economy. Public anger poured into the streets of central Tunis this weekend, as Alessandra Bajec reported for Al-Monitor, with hundreds of protesters chanting “Saied, get out” and “the coup will fall.” 

The erosion of Tunisian democracy has drawn bipartisan Congressional concern and prompted the Biden administration to propose slashing Tunisia’s economic and military assistance by half in its 2023 budget request to Congress. 

Saied’s visit to Washington — his first since his July 2021 power grab — gives him an extra layer of legitimacy, said Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute and former National Security Council director for North Africa. But it’s also an opportunity for Biden officials to press Saied for reforms. 

“Saied is not known for taking any foreign input — or domestic input for that matter,” Fishman said. “But we’ll see what comes of it.”


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Iran booted from UN women's rights body 

Iran's membership on the Commission on the Status of Women — a UN body tasked with promoting women’s empowerment — came to an end Wednesday, as UN member states voted to expel Tehran for its repression of women

Earlier this year, Iran began a four-year term on the commission, which the Middle East Institute’s Fatima Abo Alasrar said was a way for Tehran to “obtain legitimacy and enshrine its regressive policies.” 

On the Economic and Social Council, a 54-member UN body that oversees and elects members of the commission, 29 voted in favor, eight against and 16 abstained from the US-penned resolution to kick Iran off the women’s body. 

“The unmistakable message is this: the world is listening and taking action. The women and girls of Iran will be heard,” Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted after the vote. The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not return a request for comment. 

Morocco out after historic World Cup performance

After defying all odds, Morocco’s inspirational run at the World Cup in Doha came to an end on Wednesday as the men's team lost to France 2-0. If you missed Wednesday’s match, check out Adam Lucente’s report on Morocco’s semifinals appearance  — the first ever for an African and Arabic-speaking country. 

As Adam notes, the Moroccan team’s winning streak gained them many fans across the Middle East and North Africa, even in rival Algeria. The team also received praise in the region for waving Palestinian flags after their matches.

The disappointment was palpable inside the international media center at the US-Africa Leaders Summit, where journalists from across Africa huddled around TVs to cheer on Morocco.

More top stories from our contributors 

 • Marc Español has this deep dive on the growth in trade relations between Egypt and the Nile Basin countries.  

 • Hanan Hamdan explains why Lebanese expatriates abroad are complaining about the high fees of renewing passports.

 • Israel’s intelligence-security community is mostly united in its assessment that Iran’s nationwide protests are not a fleeting phenomenon, writes Ben Caspit. 

 • The emergence of new armed Palestinian groups in the West Bank has alarmed Israel's security establishment, reports Amany Mahmoud. 

 • Al-Monitor PRO subscribers can read Jaime Moore-Carrillo’s report on the future of American direct investment in the Middle East. 

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