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US senators introduce bill to restore Tunisia’s democracy

The law recognizes that President Kais Said has taken steps to undermine Tunisia’s democratic institutions.

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

The bill also calls for support for the North African country’s democratic institutions and authorizing the creation of a fund for democratic reforms.

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

“Tunisia has emerged from the Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring as a rare example of a nascent and developing democracy. “Unfortunately, Tunisian President Kais Said has taken a number of draconian measures that have undermined Tunisia’s democratic institutions and consolidated the power of the executive branch,” Risch said.

Saeed won a landslide victory in the 2019 presidential election but seized power in July 2021 in a move branded a coup by his opponents.

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

In March, the European Parliament condemned Saeed’s “authoritarian drift” in a non-binding resolution, saying the detainees were “terrorists” involved in “conspiracies against state security”.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken urged 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 included $987 million in financial aid.

“Despite the Biden administration’s advertising cuts in aid, the International Monetary Fund’s moratorium on loans, and Congressional threats to seek conditioning aid, President Said has not changed course,” Risch said.

Last October, the debt-ridden North African country reached an agreement in principle with the IMF on a nearly $2 billion deal, but talks stalled.

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

But Saeed has repeatedly rejected what he calls the IMF’s “dictates” before granting a loan, even as the country struggles under crippling inflation and debt estimated at about 80 percent of its gross domestic product.

“This legislation would limit State Department funding in Tunisia until President Said ends the state of emergency and provides real economic incentives for meaningful democratic reforms. “Tunisia has been a longtime partner of the United States, but it must change course or risk a further deterioration of US-Tunisia relations,” Risch said.

The law also limits Tunisia’s Department of State-administered funds, including security assistance, to 25 percent until the end of the nationwide state of emergency declared on July 25, 2021, excluding funds for Tunisian civil society.

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

The legislation would authorize $100 million per year for the 2024-2025 fiscal year to create a “Tunisia Democracy Support Fund.”

“This law preserves humanitarian and economic support for Tunisian civil society, while clarifying the preferences of President Kais Said. He and his government can either end the state of emergency and return Tunisia to a democratic path. Or he could stand in the way of US support for the people and government of Tunisia,” Menendez said.

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