Recently, I read an op-ed by Connecticut’s Haddiyyah Ali, who rightfully called on me and Sen. Richard Blumenthal to help protect democracy in Tunisia. Her concerns are valid, and it is encouraging to know she and other young people in Connecticut are paying such close attention to global affairs.
As your U.S. Senator, I have the privilege of representing our state both in Washington D.C. and abroad through my role on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As a member of the Committee, I recently led a Congressional delegation to Tunisia where I had the opportunity to speak directly to the president of Tunisia, President Kais Saied. I want to share what happened during the trip, and thank Haddiyyah for her concern.
Over the past ten years, Tunisia had emerged as a bright spot in the Middle East and North Africa. While Tunisians are understandably frustrated that economic progress has been slow, Tunisia’s democratic transition has served as an inspiration for nascent democracy movements in the region. But on July 25 of this year, President Saied declared a national emergency, sent the military to lock the doors of Parliament, and named himself the sole ruler of the country until a new government could be formed.
I am deeply concerned about these developments, so I was eager to take advantage of the opportunity to represent the United States and travel to Tunisia this month to meet with President Saied and make clear the importance of unwinding this crisis. A threat to democracy anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere, and as such, it is important that the U.S. remain engaged when this precious system of government is undermined.
In our meeting, I urged President Saied to swiftly end the state of emergency and I pressed him to outline his plan for returning the country to a representative democracy. I told him that concern was growing for Tunisia in Connecticut and across the United States, and that specifics on how he’d restore democracy would help allay those concerns from Tunisia’s partners, like the United States.
I made it clear that the United States’ interest is to protect and advance a healthy democracy and economy for the Tunisian people. We do not favor any one party over another and have zero interest in pushing any one specific reform agenda. Those questions are for Tunisians to decide. But continuing the United States’ close relationship with Tunisia is tied to Tunisia’s sustained commitment to democracy.
President Saied was quick to declare that his intention was not to overthrow democratic government and he stated unequivocally that his plan was to name a new Prime Minister and government, and begin the process of amending the county’s constitution to put in place a more effective, responsive government structure. However, he did not provide a timeline or any important details, and this week, President Saied did the opposite of what he promised our delegation by declaring his intention to rule by decree and suspending parts of the constitution.
These steps contradict President Saied’s commitment to the Tunisian people to protect and support their democratic rights, and are not the way to solve the very real problems Tunisia is facing. We must continue to support the Tunisian people with aid, but until democracy is restored, we must reconsider our security assistance package to Tunisia.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, is a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.