WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has proposed slashing US economic assistance to Tunisia next year while maintaining near-current levels of security aid, as President Kais Saied continues to restrict his country’s path to democratic governance.
The State Department’s fiscal year 2024 spending plan released last week seeks $68.3 million in overall bilateral aid for Tunisia, down from the $106 million requested for this year. Of that, the administration is proposing just $14.5 million in US economic support for Tunisia for the fiscal year that begins in October, down from the $45 million requested for this year.
The requested cuts come as the North African country faces a deepening economic crisis and has sought a $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund amid fears the government may default on its debt. Food prices have soared, unemployment rates have risen and Tunisia’s public debt now accounts for more than 80% of its gross domestic product.
Meanwhile, Saied has continued to cement his power, reversing many of Tunisia’s hard-fought democratic gains born out of the Arab Spring while publicly scapegoating migrants for the country’s economic woes.
Tunisia’s parliament convened on Monday for the first time since Saied suspended the legislative body in 2021, asserted broad executive powers and led a crackdown against critics and members of the opposition Islamist Ennahda party. The country’s main opposition coalition said it won’t recognize the new parliament, members of which were elected in polls that boasted just 11% voter turnout.
Tunisia’s democratic backsliding has raised alarm in the US Congress, where lawmakers from both parties have called on the Biden administration to exert its leverage to dissuade Saied from further anti-democratic steps. Congress hasn’t earmarked funds for the North African country since the Tunisian leader sacked his prime minister and suspended parliament in 2021, deferring to the Biden administration on the amount of security and economic aid to send Tunisia.
A State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor that the proposed cuts to economic aid are intended to “signal the United States' continued concern over the weakening of democratic institutions, while allowing sufficient funding for civil society, citizens and climate resilience as the Tunisian people strive to build a prosperous and democratic future for all.”
But experts say it’s unlikely the move will have much impact on decision-making in Tunis.
Saied’s government has not yet fulfilled requisites by the IMF to advance the $1.9 billion loan process initially agreed upon last October, a spokesperson for the IMF told Al-Monitor. And Biden’s latest budget calls for only a slight decrease in US security aid to Tunisia: $53.8 million for next year, as compared to $61 million previously requested for this year.
Of that security aid, the administration is seeking $45 million in funds to cover Tunisia’s purchases of US arms — the same amount the White House requested for this year, following a sharp reduction over the prior year, which Biden administration officials at the time attributed to Saied’s moves to hobble his country’s democracy.
Tunis remains a close partner with the US military on counterterrorism as Pentagon and US intelligence officials also continue to grapple with containing the spread of Russia’s Wagner mercenaries in Africa.
In its latest budget justification to Congress, the State Department noted that Tunisia’s military “remain[s] on the front lines” against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, as well as against “the instability emanating from Libya.” Tunisia’s armed forces also “serve as an important apolitical institution in Tunisian society,” the department’s request read.
Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, said slashing US economic assistance while holding mostly steady on security aid would undermine the Biden administration’s claims that it supports the Tunisian people and their democratic aspirations.
“It sends a concerning message to Saied and security officials in the country that, despite their abuses, we are happy to maintain support for your institutions as long as you continue to work with us,” Binder said.
Nearly all of the roughly $8 million in requested cuts to security aid would affect funding for Tunisia’s law enforcement and counternarcotics efforts run through the Tunisian Interior and Justice ministries. In recent weeks, police operating under the Ministry of Interior have rounded up more than 20 prominent political figures, including the spokesperson of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, as part of Saeid’s clampdown on dissent.
Saied’s crackdown and recent xenophobic scapegoating have helped created what the State Department’s top Middle East director, Barbara Leaf, described during a recent Al-Monitor event as a "climate of fear among the most vulnerable people in the country.”
Hanene Tajouri Bessassi, Tunisia's ambassador to the United States, told Al-Monitor that her government was surprised to see the “drastic slash” in economic assistance.
“Our reliable partners who really care about the Tunisian democratic experience have to stand by Tunisia economically to help constructively the Tunisian authorities to put the country on the path of growth and prosperity and correlatively to sustain the democratic process," Bessassi said.
Yet Tunisia isn’t the only country in the region targeted for cuts to US economic assistance in the State Department’s latest budget. Yemen, Libya, Morocco and Syria would see significant foreign aid cuts, while Lebanon’s, Iraq’s, Egypt’s and Jordan’s would remain steady. Only the Palestinian territories would see an increase in requested economic aid, to $225 million from this year’s requested $185 million.
The Biden administration is also seeking more flexibility in how it incentivizes political progress in the Middle East and North Africa. The State Department’s budget justification proposes $90 million for the administration to put toward “unforeseen openings and support emerging opportunities” in the region, including “democratic progress in Tunisia.”
In addition, the White House is seeking an additional $113 million for flexible foreign military funding (FMF) across the globe to address “emergent foreign policy priorities” amid Washington’s strategic competition with Russia and China. Tunisia is listed as a possible recipient of some of that FMF — if the country’s leadership “shows signs of a return to democratic governance."
“That's supposed to be a carrot in the context of sticks,” said William Lawrence, a former US diplomat in Tunisia who is now a professor at American University.
“The hope would be that people around Saied would convince them that this is a carrot that he should take,” Lawrence said. “But the likelihood that he will go for it I think is relatively low, given his political vision, temperament and desire to do something else in Tunisia.”