EU to maintain Tunisia funding despite slide towards autocracy

The EU is to continue to provide budget support to Tunisia, even as the country’s controversial President Kais Saied announced that he would immediately dissolve parliament after it voted to repeal his decision to rule by decree and freeze democratic institutions. [EPA-EFE/MOHAMED MESSARA]

The EU is to continue providing budget support to Tunisia, the European Commission announced, even as the country’s controversial President Kais Saied moved to immediately dissolve parliament after it voted to repeal his decision to freeze democratic institutions and rule by decree.

Saied suspended parliament and sacked the government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi last July, in a power grab described by opponents as a ‘constitutional coup’.

On Wednesday (30 March), the parliament held its first session, albeit virtual, since being among the political institutions to be suspended by Saied in July. At the session, lawmakers voted to repeal the “exceptional measures” and subsequent decrees issued by Saied, though the vote was not legally binding.

Saied told state television the parliament had been dissolved “to preserve the state and its institutions”. He has unveiled plans to draft a new constitution and continue one-man rule, with a view to potentially holding fresh parliamentary elections before the end of the year.

Opposition officials have described the situation as ‘particularly tense’ after Justice Minister Leila Jeffal requested the public prosecutor initiate arrest proceedings against the lawmakers who participated in Wednesday’s session’.

She said their crime was “forming a criminal association” to “endanger the state and cause chaos on the Tunisian territory”, an offence which potentially carries the death penalty.

However, there appears little chance of the EU suspending financial support for the president, despite the slide of Tunisia, the only Arab Spring country in the region to still have multi-party democracy, back towards autocracy.

Following a meeting between President Saied and EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi in Tunis on Tuesday and Wednesday, the European Commission announced that it would lend Tunisia €450 million in budget support.

After an initial surge in public support for the president, who promised to tackle political corruption and prioritise growth for the Tunisian economy after a decade of sluggish performance, rising poverty and unemployment, the financial crisis facing the country is now deepening.

Earlier this month, credit rating agency Fitch downgraded Tunisian sovereign debt to junk status.

Opposition forces in Tunisia believe that public support for Saied has dropped significantly from its high point last September, and there has been a wave of recent public protests against the president and his constitutional reform plans, prompting fears of possible violent conflict.

Saied has so far ruled out going to the International Monetary Fund in search of a financial recovery package.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also set to intensify Tunisia’s social and economic difficulties. Because of its heavy reliance on wheat imports, Tunisia will be able to tap a €200 million EU fund, along with Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria, designed to mitigate against the consequences of grain shortages resulting from disruption to grain supply from Ukraine and Russia.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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