U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf said on Thursday that Tunisian President Kais Saied’s actions that have undermined democratic checks and balances have created “enormous anxiety” about where Tunisia is headed.
After years of work to establish a democracy, “what we’ve witnessed in the last year and a half is the administration leading Tunisia in a totally different direction,” Leaf told Reuters, expressing Washington’s ugliest criticism of Saied to date.
“There have been a number of moves over the past year by the president that frankly have weakened foundational principles of checks and balances,” she said.
Saied seized most powers in 2021, shutting down parliament before passing a new constitution that gives himself near total sway, and police have this year arrested more than a dozen opposition figures who accuse him of a coup.
Saied says his actions were legal and needed to save Tunisia from years of chaos, while accusing his opponents of being criminals, traitors and terrorists.
Leaf said Said’s recent remarks that any judges who released suspects would be considered as abetting them were “exactly the sort of commentary that has given us enormous concern about where Tunisia is headed, guided by this president”.
She said many Tunisians were dissatisfied by the years following the 2011 revolution that brought democracy, but said “to correct those deficiencies you don’t strip institutions of their power”.
“I can think of no more important institution than an independent judiciary,” she added.
Saied has been criticised for comments last month that there was a criminal plot to change Tunisia’s demography via illegal migration as he announced a crackdown on undocumented migrants.
“These were comments that created a terrible climate of fear but more than that actually resulted in attacks on these very vulnerable people, attacks and a tidal wave of racist rhetoric,” Leaf said.
Asked about Tunisian steps to reassure over migrant rights, which included longer visas and a reminder to police on anti-racism laws, but not a retraction of Saied’s comments on demographics, she said “there’s still work to be done”.
Saied has rejected previous criticism as foreign interference.
“Friends speak to friends with honesty… we will criticise where criticism is merited. That’s not interference,” Leaf said.
The fate of Tunisia’s efforts to secure a $1.9 billion IMF loan in support of reforms to help avert an economic collapse was in the government’s own hands, she said.
“This is a package that they (the Tunisian government) negotiated, that they came up with, and for whatever reason they still have not signed onto the package that they negotiated,” she added.
“The international community is ready to support Tunisia when its leadership makes fundamental decisions about where it’s going,” she said, adding that until the government decided to sign its own reform package, “our hands are tied”.
Tunisia’s decision to carry out reforms it suggested to the IMF was “a sovereign decision … and if they decide not to do that we are keen to know what the plan B or plan C is,” she said.
Leaf visited Libya this week and said U.N. envoy Abdoulaye Bathily’s new political push was “an excellent opportunity” to move towards elections this year.
She met Libyan leaders “to convey very forthrightly our expectations,” she said.
Despite scepticism after years of failed efforts to get Libyan political leaders to accept elections that might end their power, she said Bathily had “eyes wide open” about the challenges.
Unlike in the past, the international community was more aligned over Libya, she said, and while there was no push yet for sanctions against spoilers, “that might come eventually”.
Elections and a unified government in Libya with full sovereignty were also the best way to eject the Russian Wagner group, which has been operating in Libya in alliance with the eastern forces.
The group abuses Libyan sovereignty and destabilises the Sahel region, Leaf said, adding it essentially uses Libya “as a roadway to get to Central Africa and plunder its resources”.