Tunis, Tunisia – The United States has cut military and civilian aid to Tunisia. A much-needed $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund continues to be delayed with the possibility of a US veto. And the nearly $500 million funding from Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US aid agency, is unlikely to get underway.
The main reason, according to analysts: Tunisia’s increasingly authoritarian drift under the President Kais Saiedis contributing to the increasing international isolation of the North African country.
Cash-strapped Tunisia is losing its financial resources at a time when the country needs friends’ help to bounce back from an entrenched economy.
Kenneth Katzman, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center think-tank and recently retired from the US Congressional Research Service, said: “The president has screwed up or in some way broke it. destroys the image of Tunisia as the sole success story of the Arab Spring. “If you do that, you will pay the price.”
The cut in US funding in particular, from $88.9 million in 2021 to $55.2 million in 2022 and is expected to continue this year, is a blow. strongly against Tunisia, a sign of shifting winds in international perceptions of the country and Saied’s own increasingly precarious position.
Since Tunisia’s revolution in 2011, the revolution has toppled longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in what appeared to be The strongest democracy in the Arab worldThe United States is one of their largest foreign donors, with hundreds of millions of dollars.
However, Saied’s policies during his presidency changed US and international attitudes.
Most notable was his decision to suspend parliament and unilaterally dissolve the government in July 2021 before ruling by decree and introducing a new constitution to consolidate power in the hands of the president.
Saied’s governance options effectively eliminated the chance of receiving the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant for Tunisia in the near term even though it was awarded to the country in June 2021. This award is awarded on the basis that Tunisia adheres to “democratic governance and equitable prosperity”.
Funds have been earmarked for development and infrastructure projects such as the digitization of the port of Rades.
Saied rarely travels but has taken the opportunity of recent international summits to try to win friends and support. However, he has returned empty-handed and even more isolated.
And it’s not just the West that’s lost interest. According to Monica Marks, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, Saied also failed to secure funding from Saudi Arabia during his visit to Riyadh within the framework of the Saudi-Chinese summit in December. .
“Many experts say that the Gulf powers will bail out Saied after the coup [the situation] like [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi in 2013, but we’re not in 2013 anymore and the Gulf powers are more cautious with their money,” said Marks, comparing Saied’s current position to the 2013 coup in Egypt. Egypt, then Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates stepped in to finance Egypt.
“The problem Saied had with communication and his lack of diplomatic tact proved problematic,” Marks said. “The economy is his Achilles heel, and it is rapidly becoming necrotic.”
Marks added: “Gulf powers are wondering if he is a useful ally or an agent of chaos and wants a return on investment. “It appears that Saudi Arabia has tied financial support for Saied to an IMF bailout” may not come because “the wise IMF does not want to throw money at a new dictator who does not appear to be Tunisia is implementing its favorite reforms.”
Military balancing act
Saied’s difficulties are illustrated in Voter turnout is at a record low for the December 17 parliamentary elections. Many Tunisians see the legislature as powerless following Saied’s constitutional changes.
Saied chose to respond to that defeat by increasingly attacking his political opponents, whom he labeled the “enemy of democracy in Tunisia” and filming the lecture himself. to the cabinet and the army chiefs of staff.
But Katzman said not everyone believes aid to Tunisia should be tied to Saied’s political decisions.
“Some Tunisian experts feel that is not the right path,” he said. “There is a core civil society that is still very active and if you reduce your support for them, you will succeed. [the political situation] worse.”
Katzman added that the US is “just providing enough money to keep these things going and not completely cut off everyone we’re working with there, but is intended to send a signal to the president that he is a disappointment”.
The Tunisian military will still receive a substantial amount of US funding, increasing to 60% of Washington’s spending in the country.
The military’s reputation as a de-politicized organization grew due to the 2011 revolution and decision not to intervene in favor of Ben Ali.
Since then, foreign funding has flowed into it.
However, military leaders were present and sat in silence during Saied’s keynote speeches, including in March. when he dissolved parliamentand in December when he called his opponents “enemies of the country” who will face justice.
According to Chaima Aissa of the opposition National Salvation Front, the military now fears public “retaliation” for tacitly supporting the president “if Saied’s regime collapses”.
But the US Department of Defense still felt the need to support the Tunisian army.
William Lawrence, professor of political science and international affairs at American University in Washington, said: “The Pentagon, which has been very vocal lately about Tunisia in US politics, wants major allies beyond NATO can conduct joint exercises. diplomat. “They want a partner who is a real partner, but if you cut the military budget too much, the Tunisian army won’t be able to function.”
In the absence of the IMF bailout loan, the Central Bank of Tunisia took financial measures, including raising interest rates to 8%, which further reduced the ability of the Tunisian people to spend.
The Finance Law 2023 has also been widely criticized as the National Bar Association described it as a “big burden on the people”. The law introduced higher taxes to provide much-needed revenue to the government but left Tunisians struggling to make ends meet instead of hunting down tax evaders.
With the economy so far showing little signs of improvement and many of the policies implemented by Saied unpopular with many Tunisians, the president is in a precarious position.
The powerful UGTT labor union initially supported Saied’s grip on power but appears to have turned against the president and has taken increasingly confrontational stances, including national strikes.
Having it agree to Saied’s agenda is particularly important to the IMF, which expects the body of more than one million members to support the economic reforms it requires.
But in the past week, UGTT has begun negotiations with the Tunisian Bar Association and the Human Rights League, both of which are prominent opponents of Saied.
The union is currently planning to join the protests on Saturday, the anniversary of the 2011 overthrow of Ben Ali.
And with two more days of national traffic strike also expected at the end of January, apparently UGTT is strengthening its opposition to Saied.
“UGTT has started a negotiation process [with opposition groups]”If UGTT starts a national dialogue, Saied knows this will throw off the balance,” said Marks. [against him].”