US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf on Thursday said Tunisian President Kais Saied caused "enormous concern" about where Tunisia is headed with moves that weakened democratic checks and balances.
“After years of efforts to build democracy, what we've seen in the last year and a half is the Tunisian government taking a very different direction," Leaf told Reuters, voicing Washington's clearest criticism of Saied to date.
"There have been a number of moves over the past year by Saied that frankly have weakened foundational principles of checks and balances," she said.
Saied seizes power
Saied seized most powers in 2021 and shut down parliament before passing a new constitution that gives himself near total sway. Moreover, Tunisian police this year have arrested more than a dozen opposition figures who accuse him of a coup.
Saied says his actions were legal and needed to save Tunisia from years of chaos, while accusing his opponents of being criminals, traitors and terrorists.
Leaf said Said's recent remarks that any judges who released suspects would be considered as abetting them were exactly the sort of commentary that gave them an enormous concern about where Tunisia was headed guided by him.
She said many Tunisians were dissatisfied over the years following the 2011 revolution that brought democracy. "To correct those deficiencies, you don't strip institutions of their power,” she said, however.
"I can think of no more important institution than an independent judiciary," she added.
Saied has been criticized for comments last month that there was a criminal plot to change Tunisia's demography via illegal migration as he announced a crackdown on undocumented migrants.
"These comments created a terrible climate of fear. Furthermore, it actually resulted in attacks vulnerable migrants in a tidal wave of racist rhetoric," Leaf said.