West News Wire: During a heated Senate hearing on Wednesday, the Biden administration came under fire for its decision to cut humanitarian and economic aid to Tunisia while continuing to provide military support to the North African nation as its democracy crumbles. 

Joshua Harris, the top representative of the State Department for North Africa, defended the department’s request for funding for 2024, which called for budget cuts in support for economic development and democracy promotion while maintaining security aid like Foreign Military Financing (FMF), which is used to buy American weapons. 

Promoting human rights and democracy in Tunisia, according to Harris, is “fundamental” to the Biden administration. 

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy reacted angrily to the remarks, saying, “I just don’t think it’s accurate that if your major purpose is to protect civil society and human rights, that this is a budget that reflects that priority.” 

“If what you were saying was true, we would be seeing a budget that requested the opposite,” he added. “It’s pretty exceptional, we are zeroing out funding for human rights.” 

An authoritarian crackdown by Tunisia’s current president, Kais Saied, has put the country’s triumph as the only democracy to come out of the 2011 Arab Spring in jeopardy. 

The democratically elected Saied closed down the legislature in 2021. In order to solidify power, he removed it in favour of a rubber-stamp assembly and changed the constitution. Since then, he has made a string of arrests of journalists, activists, and political rivals. 

Saied has received varying degrees of criticism and engagement from the Biden administration. It referred to the legislative elections held last year, which saw a turnout of just 11% and were boycotted by the opposition, as a “essential first step” in reestablishing the nation’s democracy. 

Senior US officials have occasionally adopted a stricter stance. According to US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Tunisia must contend with “autocracy, instability, and corruption. 

The 2024 budget proposal, according to Senator Murphy, who has been one of the Senate’s most outspoken critics of the Biden administration’s stance on Tunisia, “sends a muddled message.” 

He stated, “I don’t see what message we are sending when we maintain military funding while cutting aid to civil society. 

Following the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia became the focal point of US efforts to promote civil society. As Tunisia’s democracy began to take hold, Washington saw an opportunity to strengthen its ties with the military that date back to the Cold War. 

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In 2015, it was designated a major non-Nato ally, a decision that unlocks access to superior US weapons systems and training. A wave of terror attacks in the following years led to even greater cooperation. 

Tunisia’s military has been in the crosshairs of critics like Murphy because of the role it plays in Saied’s power grab. The military dispatched tanks to shutter Tunisia’s parliament in 2021. Saied’s political opponents have been tried in military courts. Meanwhile, Saied has sought to surround himself with military figures. 

The Biden administration did cut military aid after Saied’s closure of parliament, but funding has held up since then, and Washington has shown no appetite to curtail the wider defence relationship. 

Middle East Eye previously revealed how Tunisia’s partnership with the Wyoming National Guard has been “growing” in recent years. Tunisian special forces recently trained with the US in Ghana and Tunisia is set to co-host the Africa Lion military exercises later this summer. It is one of the US’s biggest projections of military might on the continent. 

Besides serving as a counterterrorism partner, Washington looks to Tunisia’s military, perched on the Mediterranean, as an ally in a corner of the world where it is experiencing increasing competition with Russia and China. 

In his testimony on Wednesday, Harris said Beijing was among US adversaries making “pernicious attempts” to gain control of strategic sectors in Tunisia. Saied recently ruled out a $1.9bn IMF loan that analysts say is necessary to stave off the country’s economic collapse. 

Analysts and diplomats agree that as Saied is perceived as becoming more erratic, Washington’s worries about a social and economic breakdown in Tunisia have strengthened the case for maintaining the military alliance.  

“The thinking in Washington and EU capitals is that we made deep investments after 2011 in a military that is relatively professional for the region,” a western diplomat said to MEE. “If Tunisia implodes, there needs to be adults in the room to talk with, and there are good partners in the Tunisian military.”  

According to Senator Murphy, the administration placed “a bet on the Tunisian military” when it ought to have placed a bet on civil society. 


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