US says Saied has shaken Tunisia's democratic foundations

US says Saied has shaken Tunisia's democratic foundations
Saied has been accused of gutting the foundations of the Tunisian economy and creating a "climate of fear" for migrants living in the country.
2 min read
Saied has argued that his action were needed to 'save Tunisia from chaos' [Getty images]

Tunisian President Kais Saied has caused "enormous concern" about where Tunisia is headed with moves that have weakened democratic checks and balances, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf said on Thursday.

After years of efforts to build a democracy "what we've seen in the last year and a half is the government taking Tunisia in a very different direction," Leaf told Reuters, voicing Washington's clearest 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".

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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".