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US Democratic lawmakers condemn Tunisian President Kais Saied's crackdown

Ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Middle East subcommittee slam 'blatant attacks' on free speech and association
Rached Ghannouchi is the highest-profile and latest member of the Ennahda party to be arrested by Tunisian police (AFP/File photo)

The top Democrats on the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee and Middle East subcommittee condemned the arrests of political figures and closure of political party offices in Tunisia amid an authoritarian crackdown by the President Kais Saied.

Tunisian police on Monday raided the home of Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi and arrested him on the basis of accusations that he was plotting against internal state security.

Following the arrest, Tunisia's minister of interior banned Ennahda and the National Salvation Front, the largest opposition coalition movement, from holding meetings, according to documents obtained by Middle East Eye. 

On Friday, Congressman Gregory Meeks, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Dean Phillips, ranking member of the subcommittee on the Middle East, condemned the moves.

"Tunisia's recent arrests of political figures, forcible closures of political party offices, and bans on free assembly of certain political groups are blatant attacks on free speech and association," the lawmakers said.

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They said the recent moves "undermine principles enshrined in Tunisia's constitution" adding that "respect for democratic norms and the rule of law are central to a strong U.S.-Tunisian relationship".

In 2021, the democratically elected Saied shuttered parliament, replaced it with a rubber-stamp assembly, and rewrote the constitution to consolidate power.

He has since launched a wave of arrests targeting journalists, activists and political opponents.

'Bet on the Tunisian military'

The Joe Biden administration has oscillated between scolding and engaging Saied. It has cut aid to Tunis. The State Department's 2024 budget request called for a roughly 70 percent drop in economic support from $45m to $14.5m.

Military aid fell sharply the year after Saied's power grab, but it has held up since then. After the Arab Spring more than a decade ago, the US funded civil society in Tunisia but also sought to draw the military closer, designating it a major non-Nato ally in 2015.

But with the military accused of aiding Saied's power-group, those ties are coming under pressure.

When Saied ordered the closure of parliament, the military duly dispatched tanks to block the entrance. Saied's political opponents have been prosecuted in military courts, a potential human rights violation. The US Leahy Law bars American aid to foreign security forces that violate human rights.

Middle East Eye recently revealed the scant impact aid cuts have had on military cooperation, as Tunisian special forces train in US-led Africa exercises and Tunis prepares to attend the 3oth anniversary of a US National Guard partnership programme in Washington, DC. 

How Tunisia’s defence ties with US endure despite aid cuts
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But as Tunisia's democracy unravels, President Biden is facing calls from his own party to rein in the military relationship.

"The Biden administration has, I think, made a bet on the Tunisian military," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said in April. "I would argue that we should make a bet on civil society instead."

Ghannouchi is the latest of many Ennahda party members who have been arrested by Tunisian police.

In February, senior Ennahda party leader Said Ferjani was detained, and Ali Laarayedh, a former prime minister, has been detained since December 2022.

In the past month, about 30 political activists, judges, lawyers and the head of a radio station have been arrested and accused of conspiring against national security.

On Wednesday, US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel condemned Ghannouchi's arrest and the closure of Ennahda's headquarters as "fundamentally at odds with the principles Tunisians adopted in a constitution". 

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