Stop all financial aid to Tunisia until it returns to democracy

If Tunisia’s global partners are genuinely concerned about President Kais Saeid’s attacks on democracy, they should stop bankrolling his regime.

Supporters of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), carry banners and flags during a protest against President Kais Saied's policies, accusing him of trying to stifle basic freedoms including union rights, in Sfax, Tunisia February 18
Supporters of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) carry banners and flags during a protest against President Kais Saied's policies, accusing him of trying to stifle basic freedoms, including union rights, in Sfax, Tunisia, February 18, 2023 [File: Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

Tunisia’s dictatorial regime has reached a new low. An unprecedented crackdown on the critics of President Kais Saied, which saw dozens of public figures, including politicians, protest organisers, lawyers, judges, union officials, the head of a leading independent radio station and influential business leaders, arrested in often-violent night raids, sparked nationwide protests and fears of a return to autocracy.

The crackdown is the latest attempt by the regime to scare Tunisian people, who are in despair and tired of the authoritarian president’s inability to resolve Tunisia’s protracted economic crisis, into submission. The record low voter turnout (the lowest since the 2011 revolution) at the December-January parliamentary election made it clear that Saied no longer enjoys widespread public support and that the viewpoints of his critics – who had called for a boycott of the election – are resonating more among Tunisians. Saied is struggling to convince the masses of the competence and legitimacy of his government and thus trying to stifle dissent using state violence.

Alongside a variety of anti-government actions, Saied accused the “traitors” who have been arrested as part of the latest crackdown of “price fixing”, “market manipulation” and “creating food shortages”. This is a sign that the president is not only attempting to eliminate any and all opposition to his government, but also positioning his critics to take the blame for the abysmal state of the Tunisian economy.

And in another demonstration of the Saied government’s fear of any meaningful critique coming from a public figure, on February 18 the president personally ordered Europe’s top trade union official to leave the country after she addressed protesters at a protest organised by an influential labour union.

Saied accused Esther Lynch, the Irish general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, of making statements that “interfered with Tunisian internal affairs” during a protest organised by Tunisia’s General Labour Union, UGTT, in the port city of Sfax.

In an address to the protesters, Lynch had demanded the release of arrested union officials and called on the Tunisian government to take immediate action to improve the economy.

This latest wide-reaching crackdown on dissent came on the back of a similar attack on Tunisia’s independent judiciary, which saw dozens of judges arbitrarily dismissed for alleged “financial and moral corruption”. Judges, who recently appealed their dismissals and won, say they have been targeted for upholding the independence of the judiciary and refusing to follow the regime’s orders.

With all three branches of government captured, independent media silenced, unions sidelined, and prominent opposition figures jailed on superfluous charges, Tunisians desperate to protect their country’s young democracy from Saied’s growing authoritarianism are turning to the international community for support.

So far, however, global powers and international organisations responded to the worrying state of affairs in Tunisia with nothing more than a figurative shrug. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk expressed concern “over the deepening crackdown against perceived political opponents and civil society”, while the US State Department’s spokesperson Ned Price said, “It is a core US principle that people around the world should be able to express themselves without fear or reprisal.”

The European Union likewise expressed its “concern” and said it expects the government to fulfil its commitments to the Tunisian people.

Of course, such empty expressions of concern do nothing to stop Saied from dismantling Tunisia’s remaining democratic institutions and transforming the country into a totalitarian dictatorship.

In the face of Saied’s relentless efforts to suffocate what is left of Tunisia’s democracy, the international community must act decisively and urgently. Before it is too late, global powers should move to pressure Saied’s regime into a peaceful democratic transition using all the economic and political leverage they hold.

Since assuming absolute power in a coup d’etat over two years ago, Saied repeatedly refused to cooperate with the international community, ignoring all calls for a swift return to democracy. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s international partners continued their cooperation with his government, seemingly preferring to deal with a somewhat stable dictatorship rather than a genuine, albeit shaky, democracy. The United States and France continue to bankroll Saied’s regime with grants and direct financial assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars despite its undeniable crimes against the Tunisian people. Hoping to expand the reach of its far right migration policies, Italy has announced that it backs Saied’s efforts to secure a much-needed IMF loan.

But this cannot continue. With no real pressure from outside, Saied will only increase the intensity of his government’s assault on the most fundamental human rights of Tunisians. The international community needs to understand that Saied has no integrity or faith in democracy. Any strategic cooperation with his regime is doomed to fail. Saied suffers from a messiah complex. From the start of his rule, he has sought to deactivate crucial aspects of Tunisia’s legal and political system to impose his quasi-religious vision of politics on the country. He has gone to extreme lengths to dehumanise his critics and establish his delusional grand vision of saving Tunisians from “evil” and “deep state” forces. Any attempts to support or cooperate with his regime can only end in disaster.

If they truly want to support the Tunisian people, global powers should condition any financial assistance to Tunisia on the country’s return to democracy. They should make it clear to all factions of Tunisia’s powerful security apparatus that they will not see any more money, including any IMF loans, until they enforce a return to democratic rule and the inclusion of opposition in political and economic decision-making.

Saied’s regime will continue to violently repress criticism and opposition as long as the security apparatus sees it as advantageous to support his authoritarian rule.

Various opposition forces in Tunisia formed a united front against Saied’s regime and are bravely fighting to free the country from the clutches of yet another dictatorship. But their efforts will all be in vain until the international community tightens the purse strings to try and convince Tunisia’s security forces that supporting democracy is more beneficial for them – and the country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.