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Reorienting US Policy Toward Tunisia

Tunisian democracy is dying. If there was ever any doubt, the last few months have revealed to all that President Kais Saied’s moves on July 25, 2021, were a coup d’état. Saied has seized all powers, arrested journalists and dissidents of all stripes, and incited violenceagainst migrants and black Tunisians. Tunisia is no longer classified as free by Freedom House or as a democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and it has tumbled nearly 50 spots since 2021 (73 to 121) in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

Tunisia’s backsliding has represented a major test for U.S. President Joe Biden’s stated desire to prioritize democracy in his foreign policy. Thus far, the Biden administration’s reaction has been tepid. While the United States has expressed concern and cut economic assistance, it has largely continuedmilitary assistance, offered its support for a $1.9 billion 

International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, invited and (literally) embracedSaied in Washington, and praised his world-record-low 11%-turnoutelections as “an essential initial step toward restoring the country’s democratic trajectory.” There is no doubt that Saied feels emboldened to crack down on dissidents today by what he perceives as a green light from the United States.

In view of Saied’s escalating crackdown, the two of us have assembled a wide array of former diplomats, senior officials, and other members of the policy community to sign an open letter calling on Biden to reorient U.S. policy toward Tunisia. In it, we urge Biden to call a spade a spade. This was a coup, and the United States should not reward such behavior with aid, loans, praise, and photo-ops. Indeed, the United States is legally bound to suspend aid in the wake of military coups or civilian coups in which the military plays a decisive role, as it did in Tunisia by shuttering the democratically-elected parliament. As the IMF’s largest shareholder, the United States should also hold off on supporting the pending loan to Tunisia until Saied releases political prisoners and establishes a genuinely inclusive national dialogue. We should not fall into the trap of enabling and subsidizing dictatorship, a decision that will haunt the United States and Tunisia in the long term.

Source: Brookings



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