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US urges Tunisia, once an Arab Spring bright spot, on democracy

The Biden administration is urging Tunisia’s leaders to reverse steps that are weakening the country’s democracy, exposing friction with a nation once seen as the most promising of those that saw the Arab Spring revolutions.

US officials describe efforts to urge Tunisia to take a different political course as President Kais Saied continues to consolidate power more than a decade after Tunisians’ uprising against their then-leader helped spark protests revolutions in countries from Syria to Egypt.

A senior State Department official said U.S. officials had expressed concern over events, including a recent constitutional referendum that significantly strengthened the powers of Saied, who took far-reaching steps to weaken institutional controls and remove political opponents in 2021. in what critics called a “coup”.

The US moves include talks between Saied and Barbara Leaf, the State Department’s top Middle East official. During a visit to Tunis Last month, Leaf raised concerns about a new constitutional framework “that weakens Tunisian democracy and how crucial it is for the future of an inclusive and transparent reform process to restore the trust of the Tunisian people.” , the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. diplomatic talks.

Public criticism has rocked US-Tunisian relations. In July, Saied’s government reacted angrily to a Statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken raising questions about a constitutional referendum vote marked by low voter turnout.

“Tunisia has seen an alarming erosion of democratic standards over the past year and has reversed many hard-won gains by the Tunisian people since 2011,” Blinken said.

Saied’s government rejected what it called unacceptable “interference in national internal affairsfollowing Blinken’s statement and summoned the senior US embassy official in Tunis.

Saied’s office said the Tunisian leader pushed back on allegations exposed by Leaf during their meeting and “called on the American authorities to listen to their Tunisian counterparts to know the reality of the situation”, Middle East Monitor reported.

US officials have sought to push Tunisia hard while avoiding a complete break with a nation whose counterterrorism cooperation is seen as a crucial part of US strategy for North Africa. Tunisia, with a population of nearly 12 million, for its part appreciates American military support and needs American support in its search for an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

“This partnership will be stronger when we have a common commitment to democratic principles,” the senior official said.

While most of the Arab Spring revolutions ended in conflict or reinforced autocracy, Tunisia made significant progress in building its democratic process following the 2011 ouster of longtime leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

But public discontent has spread over unemployment and other pocketbook issues. In response to these frustrations, the moves of Saied, a former constitutionalist, have resonated with some Tunisians who are fed up with the country’s post-revolutionary path. Others became increasingly alarmed.

Sarah Yerke, a former State Department official who is now a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the series of U.S. visits to Tunisia and public statements about its political process have been “effective in that they let Saied know someone was watching. ”

“That kind of constant drumbeat…prevents him from taking Tunisia down an even further path,” she said, referring to Saied’s possibility of taking additional steps to concentrate power in the region. Tunisian presidency.

The Biden administration has taken a more critical stance than its European allies, many of whom are focused on deterring migration through North Africa. Citing Democratic shifts, the Biden administration has proposed a sharp cut in US military and economic aid to Tunisia.

The senior official said the United States stands ready to help Tunisians forge accountable democracy, including free debate, freedoms, and “establish checks and balances that are essential to the health of all democracies.”

He declined to characterize Saied’s response to Leaf’s post, but said, “Friends need to be able to talk to each other directly.”

US officials believe their pressure could have the effect of averting even more problematic steps, such as a more sweeping crackdown on media and civil society groups.

On Friday, Tunisia published a new electoral law that reduces the size of the country’s parliament and diminishes the role of political parties. But he did not, as some US officials had feared, take more ominous steps like barring party-affiliated candidates from contesting the upcoming legislative elections. Some opposition groups are considering boycotting the vote.

The senior official said the Biden administration hailed the law as a step toward broad voter turnout.

“An inclusive and transparent reform process is so crucial moving forward,” the official said.

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