US senators introduce bill for restoration of Tunisia’s democracy

The legislation acknowledges that President Kais Saied has taken steps to undermine Tunisia’s democratic institutions.

Demonstrators carry signs during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia January 26, 2021.
Demonstrators carry signs during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia [File: Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Two US senators have introduced legislation to limit funds to Tunisia until it “restores checks and balances”.

The bill also calls for support for the North African nation’s democratic institutions, and to authorise the creation of a fund for democratic reforms.

Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho, and Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, ranking member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively, introduced the Safeguarding Tunisian Democracy Act on June 15, a statement on the committee’s website said.

“Tunisia emerged from the Jasmine Revolution and Arab Spring as a rare example of a nascent and developing democracy. Unfortunately, Tunisian President Kais Saied has taken several drastic actions that have undermined Tunisia’s democratic institutions and consolidated power in the executive,” said Risch.

Saied won a landslide victory in a 2019 presidential election but assumed sweeping powers in a July 2021 power grab in a move labelled a coup by his opponents.

Police in Tunisia, birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, have arrested more than 20 government opponents since February, including former cabinet ministers, trade unionists and media figures.

In March, the European Parliament in a non-binding resolution decried the “authoritarian drift” of Saied, who says those detained were “terrorists” involved in a “conspiracy against state security”.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Tunisia to agree to IMF reforms and avoid falling off an “economic cliff” after the European Union dangled a major aid package.

On June 11, the European Union said it was ready to offer Tunisia a package that includes up to $987m in financial assistance.

“Despite the Biden administration’s advertised reductions in assistance, a stalled International Monetary Fund loan, and congressional threats to explore conditioning assistance, President Saied has not changed course,” Risch said.

Last October, the debt-riddled North African country reached an agreement in principle for a nearly $2bn deal with the IMF, but discussions have since stalled.

The IMF has called for legislation to restructure more than 100 state-owned firms, which hold monopolies over many parts of the economy and in many cases are heavily indebted.

But Saied has repeatedly rejected what he calls the “diktats” of the IMF before a loan is granted, even as the country struggles under crippling inflation and debt estimated at about 80 percent of its gross domestic product.

“This legislation will limit State Department funding to Tunisia until President Saied ends the state of emergency, and provides real economic incentives for meaningful democratic reforms. Tunisia has been a longstanding US partner, but needs to change course or risk further degradation of the US-Tunisia relationship,” Risch said.

This legislation limits Department of State-administered Tunisia funding by 25 percent, including security assistance, until Saied ends the nationwide state of emergency declared on July 25, 2021, with the exception of funding for Tunisian civil society.

“The United States and Tunisia share interests on regional stability and economic opportunity, and I strongly support US assistance to enable the democratic aspirations and economic dignity of the Tunisian people,” said Menendez.

The legislation would authorise $100m per year for fiscal years 2024-2025 to create a “Tunisia Democracy Support Fund”.

“This legislation preserves humanitarian and economic assistance for Tunisian civil society, while clarifying President Kais Saied’s choices. He and his government can either end the state of emergency and place Tunisia back on the democratic path. Or he can stand in the way of United States support for the Tunisian people and government,” Menendez said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies