US Congressional Democrats have sent an open letter to the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, expressing concern over the alleged Tunisia rights crackdown by Tunisian President Kais Saied on perceived political opponents in the country. The 20 signatories condemned the “stark acceleration in Tunisia’s autocratic consolidation” and highlighted the wave of arrests against activists, former ministers, former MPs, senior political figures, judges, businessmen and media professionals.
They noted that Tunisian authorities charged individuals with conspiring against the state security and plotting to overthrow the government under the Anti-Terrorism Law for meeting US diplomats. They also criticized Saied’s “repugnant racist and xenophobic remarks” that undocumented sub-Saharan migrants were part of a conspiracy to change the country’s demographic make-up, and the increased arrests of undocumented migrants following those comments.
The letter called for any US foreign assistance to Tunisia to support the restoration of inclusive democratic governance and rule of law, as well as directly supporting Tunisians in dire economic need, without strengthening the hand of the internal security services that have exacerbated repression and authoritarianism under Saied.
Following the open letter from US Congressional Democrats expressing concern over Tunisian President Kais Saied’s alleged crackdown on perceived political opponents, tensions between the US and Tunisia have increased. The letter, sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, warned of a “stark acceleration in Tunisia’s autocratic consolidation” and raised concerns about the future of the US-Tunisia relationship.
Tunisia rights crackdown
Since mid-February, Tunisian authorities have arrested activists, former ministers, former MPs, senior political figures, judges, businessmen and media professionals, prompting condemnation from the UN Human Rights Office and several international rights groups. The Congresspersons were particularly alarmed by reports that individuals had been charged with conspiring against state security and plotting to overthrow the government under the Anti-Terrorism Law for meeting with US diplomats.
The American legislators also condemned Saied’s “repugnant racist and xenophobic remarks” about undocumented sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia being part of a conspiracy to change the country’s demographic makeup. In response to the president’s comments, authorities have increased their arrests of undocumented migrants, causing many to flee the country. Black people in Tunisia, both citizens and migrants, have reported being attacked and abused due to their skin colour, and police have arrested dozens of “illegal migrants”. The African Union has also condemned Saied’s remarks, warning against making “racialised hate speech”.
The letter from the US legislators urged President Joe Biden’s administration to ensure that any US foreign assistance to Tunisia supports the restoration of inclusive, democratic governance and the rule of law. They also called on the US to ensure that any aid directly supports Tunisians in dire economic need and does not strengthen the hand of those, including the internal security services, that have exacerbated repression and authoritarianism under Saied.
Tunisia has been in political turmoil since 2011 when mass protests led to the overthrow of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the country has struggled to establish a stable democracy since then. In July 2021, President Saied announced that he was seizing control of the government, dismissing the prime minister and freezing parliament for 30 days. The move was widely seen as a power grab, with Saied accused of seeking to consolidate his power and undermine democracy. Although he has since lifted the freeze on parliament, he continues to rule by decree and has yet to appoint a new prime minister.
The situation in Tunisia remains tense, with the country facing multiple challenges, including a deteriorating economic situation, rising COVID-19 cases, and ongoing political unrest. The US, which has been a key ally of Tunisia since the Arab Spring, will need to navigate the situation carefully to ensure that it continues to support democracy and human rights in the country while also maintaining its strategic interests in the region.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Hassene Dridi