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Western states differ on policies on the deepening authoritarianism in Tunis as food and fuel prices spiral
The political stand-off in Tunisia intensified on 1 April after the anti-terrorism police summoned Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi who was accused by President Kaïs Saïed of conspiring against state security.
As Tunisia slides back towards autocracy, the United States is taking a much tougher line on aid conditions than the European Union. Officials from the International Monetary Fund were in Tunis on 23-25 March to discuss the government's reform programme and its request for a bail-out.
On 30 March, the Assembly of Representatives held its first session, by video link, since being suspended by President Saïed last July (AC Vol 62 No 16, Saïed lashes out).
It was attended by around 120 lawmakers, of whom 116 voted on a cross-party basis to repeal the 'exceptional measures' and subsequent decrees issued by President Saïed since July. The vote was not legally binding but it was the most serious sign of organised political defiance yet.
In response, Saïed said he would immediately dissolve parliament. He told state television that he had been done 'to preserve the state and its institutions.'
Justice Minister Leila Jeffal has requested that the MPs who participated in the parliamentary meeting should be arrested on charges of 'criminal association' to 'endanger the State and cause chaos on the Tunisian territory', an offence which carries the death penalty.
After the heavy-handed police response to public protests over the past two months, Saïed's latest moves are the most ominous threats to the country's constitutional status.
Saïed has promised that the constitutional reform initiative which he has instigated to strengthen presidential powers, would be followed by parliamentary elections later this year.
Yet the European Union will continue to keep the financial taps flowing to Saïed's government.
On 30 March, the European Commission announced that it would lend Tunisia €450 million in budget support this year, following a meeting between President Kais Saïed and EU enlargement commissioner Olivér Várhelyi in Tunis.
The optics and timing of the announcement are not good for Brussels. Saïed had warned lawmakers on Monday, prior to Várhelyi's arrival, that convening a session would be consider as 'criminal association'.
The United States has linked its allocations of aid to a reversing of President Saïed's crackdowns on democracy (AC Vol 63 No 7, Washington toughens stance on aid amid galloping fuel and food prices).
Saïed may be a beneficiary of a diplomatic rethink by the European Commission following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The EU executive has allocated a €200m support fund for North African states likely to struggle from the impact of the war in Ukraine on wheat and grain imports. It has already opened talks with Algeria and Egypt about the prospects of increasing gas supplies to the EU.
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