House Lawmakers Push Biden to Pressure Tunisia Amid 'Democratic Backsliding'

House Lawmakers Push Biden to Pressure Tunisia Amid 'Democratic Backsliding'

A bipartisan letter called on the Biden administration to make military aid contingent on political reforms within Tunisia.

At least twelve members of the House of Representatives are calling on the Biden administration to pressure Tunisian leader Kais Saied to restore Tunisia’s constitutional system, eight months after he suspended the country’s parliament and declared a state of emergency—a series of actions that the representatives described as “democratic backsliding” and Tunisia’s political opposition characterize as a coup d’etat.

“President Kais Saied’s power grab since July 25, 2021 threatens to derail this democratic transition and could usher in another dictatorship in the region or a period of increased unrest and instability,” the letter read, according to Al Jazeera. “The U.S. position has remained relatively muted as Saied has consolidated control over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and cracked down on dissent.”

The letter has been signed by a bipartisan group of high-profile legislators, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee; “Squad” members Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.); and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who serves as the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The document comes as the State Department prepares to submit its 2023 budget proposal to Congress. It calls on the State Department to include language requiring the Biden administration to suspend military aid to Tunisia “until and unless” Saied carries out a series of actions, including ending prosecutions of journalists in military courts, reopening the Tunisian parliament, and ending government “repression of fundamental rights of civilians and political and media figures.”

A former constitutional law professor, Saied was elected to lead Tunisia in 2019, and he remains broadly popular within the country, where most Tunisians regard his actions as necessary in order to prevent corruption, according to opinion polls.

In recent weeks, Saied has worked to consolidate his control over Tunisian institutions, formally dissolving parliament in March and restructuring Tunisia’s electoral commission earlier in April. The State Department expressed “deep … concern” about this development, arguing that the country needed a “genuinely independent election authority” in order to maintain democratic institutions.

A referendum on a new constitution is scheduled to take place in July and is widely expected to pass. 

Tunisia was the first nation to overthrow its leader during the 2011 “Arab Spring,” which began after Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in protest of government corruption. In the years that followed, as other Arab nations returned to dictatorial rule or faced civil wars, Tunisia largely maintained its new democratic institutions, leading it to be described as the Arab Spring’s “sole success story.”

U.S. aid to Tunisia increased after the democratic transition, and the country was labeled a major non-NATO ally in 2015.

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.