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US lawmakers urge aid for Tunisia's civil society as crackdown intensifies

The Biden administration’s proposal to slash economic assistance while largely sustaining military aid to Tunisia has drawn concern in Congress.
Tunisian President Kais Saied meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

WASHINGTON — As democratic norms erode in Tunisia, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers wants to ensure proposed aid cuts don’t undermine the very civil society actors seeking to reverse the North African country’s democratic backslide, according to a letter obtained by Al-Monitor. 

The letter led by Reps. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), ranking member and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs' Middle East subcommittee, comes as a debate rages in Washington over how to respond to Tunisia’s democratic unraveling nearly two years after President Kais Saied sacked his prime minister, suspended the elected parliament and seized broad executive powers in a stunning power grab that his political rivals called a coup.

Congress hasn’t earmarked funds for the North African country since then, deferring to the Biden administration on the amount of security and economic aid to send Tunisia amid its steady deterioration in human rights. As Al-Monitor first reported in March, the State Department’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 sought $14.5 million in US economic support for Tunisia, down from the $45 million requested for this year. 

“The Biden administration has rightfully chosen to send a message of concern to the Tunisian government about democratic backsliding since July 2021 by limiting direct bilateral assistance to government institutions,” the group of 10 lawmakers said in their letter to Reps. Mario Diaz-Balar (R-Fla.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. 

“However, we must ensure cuts to US assistance do not occur at the expense of the Tunisian people and civil society,” they said. 

The subcommittee is working to finalize its fiscal year 2024 appropriations bill and could insert minimum funding requirements for Tunisia’s economic aid. The letter urges Diaz-Balar and Lee to ensure their spending plan bill directly supports Tunisia’s citizens and “preserves rapidly diminishing civic space.”

Tunisian authorities have ramped up their repression in the country considered the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Since mid-February, security forces under Saied’s watch have arrested some 30 political prisoners, including journalists, activists and business leaders. 

Swept up in the crackdown was Rached Ghannouchi, the 81-year-old head of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party who was arrested in April on the charge of conspiring against the security of the state. This month, he was sentenced to a year in prison in what his party called a sham trial. 

Authorities also stepped up their arrests of migrants following Saied’s claim earlier this year that undocumented sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia were part of a conspiracy to change the country’s demographic makeup. Tunisia analysts saw his incendiary rhetoric, which fueled a surge of racist violence against migrants and Black Tunisians, as an attempt to deflect from the country’s deepening economic woes. 

The letter is the latest congressional effort to draw attention to Tunisia’s democratic backslide. In a March letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a group of House Democrats expressed alarm over what they described as “a stark acceleration in Tunisia’s autocratic consolidation,” which they said raised serious concerns about the bilateral relationship. 

The Biden administration's budget request would maintain near-current levels of security assistance: $53.8 million for next year, as compared to $61 million previously requested for this year. 

Some voices in Washington, including Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), are calling on the United States to slash military aid to Tunisia given the Tunisian armed forces’ role in shuttering the democratically elected parliament in the summer of 2021 and the use of military courts since then to prosecute civilians. 

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said during a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the Biden administration considers Tunisia’s military to be “largely apolitical,” which she described as a byproduct of its close relationship with the United States. 

“We have scoped downward the security assistance to a degree that we think adequately addresses enduring security interests that we have there,” Leaf added. 

Last month, a group of former US ambassadors and experts called on the Biden administration to consider other tools of leverage, including Global Magnitsky sanctions on Saied’s enablers. They also recommended the administration pressure the International Monetary Fund’s Executive Board to hold up a $1.9 billion rescue package to Tunisia until it meets certain conditions, such as the release of political prisoners. 

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