Washington, DC – Academics, rights advocates and former diplomats in the United States have called on President Joe Biden to suspend aid to Tunisia and impose sanctions on its leaders to halt what they called the North African country’s “dramatic turn” towards authoritarian rule.
In a letter addressed to Biden earlier this week, nearly two dozen signatories warned that democracy in Tunisia was “dying” as President Kais Saied continues to consolidate power and crack down on dissent.
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“If the US is truly serious about shoring up democracies worldwide, it must send a signal that there are real costs to democratic backsliding,” Wednesday’s letter reads.
“The US should immediately suspend all US assistance to the Tunisian government, as it is legally bound to do after both military coups or civilian coups in which the military plays a decisive role.”
The letter was signed by former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul; Jeffrey Feltman, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs; Jake Walles, ex-envoy to Tunisia; and Sarah Leah Whitson, head of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), among others.
Elected in 2019, Saied froze the Tunisian parliament in 2021 and subsequently dissolved the legislature to rule by decree. Tunisia held legislative elections over two rounds in late 2022 and earlier this year that were mired by low turnout amid an opposition boycott.
Last month, Tunisian authorities arrested Rached Ghannouchi, the country’s main opposition leader and head of the Ennahda Party, on charges of plotting against state security.
Other prominent opposition figures, including Chaima Issa, Ghazi Chaouachi and Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, have also been arrested.
“Since his coup in July 2021, President Kais Saied has dismantled every democratic institution in the country, pushing through a hyper-presidential system with no checks on his power,” Wednesday’s letter said.
“He has intensified his crackdown against dissidents, casually labeling them ‘cancers’ and ‘traitors’ and hauling them before military courts.”
The letter urged Biden to impose sanctions on Saied and “his enablers, including the ministers of interior, defense, and justice”, as well as stop providing “any funds, training, or equipment to these ministries while they persecute journalists, activists and dissidents”.
It also called on Washington to oppose a $1.9bn International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to the Tunisian government until it releases political prisoners and starts an “inclusive” national dialogue.
Critics decried Saied’s power grab as a “coup” that risked bringing the country back to the authoritarianism of the pre-2011 uprising that toppled longtime Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
But the president’s supporters say his actions are necessary “reforms” aimed at fighting corruption.
Saied also sparked international outrage earlier this year when he suggested that what he called “illegal immigration” from sub-Saharan African countries aimed to change Tunisia’s character as an Arab and Muslim nation.
Wednesday’s letter accused the Tunisian president of embracing “racist conspiracies” against migrants. “We believe … sustained pressure represents the best possible way to halt Tunisia’s authoritarian turn,” the advocates wrote to Biden.