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House Democrats warn Saied's crackdown risks US-Tunisia relationship

In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a group of 20 Democratic lawmakers expressed concern over a wave of politically motivated arrests in Tunisia.
KABIL BOUSENA/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats say Tunisian President Kais Saied’s inflammatory rhetoric against migrants and intensified crackdown on his perceived critics raises “serious concerns” about the US relationship 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 (D-N.Y.) expressed alarm over what they described as “a stark acceleration in Tunisia’s autocratic consolidation.”

Under Saeid’s watch, Tunisian authorities have carried out a wave of politically motivated arrests since mid-February that have targeted activists, business leaders, journalists and prominent opposition figures. 

The campaign of arrests is among the largest since July 2021, when Saied froze the parliament, sacked his prime minister and assumed broad executive powers in a dramatic power grab that his critics labeled a coup. He later pushed through a new constitution that critics say dismantled hard-won democratic gains in Tunisia, once considered the Arab Spring’s sole success story.

The Democratic lawmakers expressed particular concern over the Tunisian authorities’ reported charging of individuals with “conspiring against state security” and “plotting to overthrow the government” for their meetings with US diplomats in Tunis, one of whom was mentioned in legal documents that were leaked to the Tunisian press. They also cite a pattern of arrests in violation of due process, the use of excessive force and detainees being denied family contact for 48 hours.  

“Not only do these alarming developments and Tunisia’s continued autocratic consolidation endanger the country’s stability in a period of deep economic insecurity, they raise serious concerns about the future of the U.S.-Tunisia relationship,” the letter read. 

The lawmakers also condemned Saied’s “repugnant racist and xenophobic remarks,” referencing his claim on Feb. 21 that undocumented sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia were part of a conspiracy to change the country’s demographic makeup. 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 Tunisia’s coast. 

Monitoring groups have also documented an uptick in racist attacks by ordinary citizens since Saied's speech, which the congressional letter said “appeared to be aimed at sowing division and inventing scapegoats for the country’s acute economic crisis at a time of growing popular mobilization against his policies.”

Saied’s crackdown comes amid a deepening economic crisis in Tunisia, where food prices are soaring, unemployment is rising and public debt now accounts for 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 assistance that a spokesperson said were designed to “signal the United States' continued concern over the weakening of democratic institutions.” 

The proposed budget calls for only a slight decrease in US security aid to Tunisia. The 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, that have exacerbated repression and authoritarianism.”

Despite Tunisia’s economic woes, Saied has yet to sign off on a $1.9 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund that was initially agreed upon last October amid fears the country could default on its debt. In a Senate hearing last week, Blinken urged Tunisia to move forward with the IMF deal, without which he said “the economy risks falling off the deep end.” 

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