Senior US official meets Tunisian President Kais Saied after recent tension

Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, meets the leader in Tunis

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 23 October 2017. USA Healthcare Symposium & Showcase: Nutrition, Obesity and Diabetes at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Academic Medical Center. Honorable Barbara A. Leaf, Ambassador of the United States Of America to the United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Shereena Al Nuwais. Section: National.
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Tunisian President Kais Saied has met Barbara Leaf, the top US official for the Middle East, who said trade ties and human rights would be on the agenda.

The visit to Tunis comes after recent tension over remarks by American officials that angered the Tunisian government.

Mr Saied met Ms Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, at the Palace of Carthage, just over a week after describing the comments as "unacceptable".

He told Ms Leaf that Tunisia firmly rejected any foreign interference in its internal affairs, the official news agency TAP reported.

Mr Saied said US authorities should listen to their Tunisian counterparts "to know everything about the real situation in Tunisia", and highlighted “false allegations peddled by some parties” about the country's politics.

In a statement, the US State Department said Ms Leaf's visit to Tunis would underscore "US support for an inclusive and transparent political and economic reform process that represents diverse Tunisian voices and protects fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression."

The State Department posted a message on Twitter of Ms Leaf's meeting with Mr Saied, and said "the US-Tunisia partnership is strongest when there is a shared commitment to democracy and human rights."

The Tunisian Foreign Ministry last month summoned the US charge d’affaires in the capital Tunis, Natasha Franceschi, to protest against statements made by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and ambassador to Tunisia nominee Joey Hood, on democracy and politics in the North African country.

The ministry described such comments as unacceptable interference.

One month later, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin repeated the criticism, saying that Tunisia's "dream of self-government" was in danger.

"The United States stands committed to supporting our friends in Tunisia — and anywhere in Africa — who are trying to forge open, accountable and inclusive democracies," Mr Austin said on August 9 at a US Africa Command ceremony.

"We can feel those headwinds in Tunisia, where people inspired the world with their demands for democracy."

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Mrs Leaf’s visit, close on the heels of a visit by members of the US Congress on August 22, could provide an icebreaker for relations between the two countries.

The State Department says on its website that the US is committed to supporting the country in laying the foundation for political stability and economic growth.

Since the January 2011 revolution against autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for 23 years, the US has committed more than $1.4 billion to support Tunisia’s transition.

In 2019, the US and Tunisia signed a five-year bilateral Development Objective Agreement for the United States Agency for International Development to provide up to $335 million to support increased private sector employment and democratic consolidation.

Tunisia faces its worst economic crisis in a decade.

Talks with the International Monetary Fund for a badly needed rescue package ground to a halt in July, shortly before Tunisians voted on controversial constitutional reforms championed by the president.

Mr Saied's critics say he has accumulated executive powers since sacking the government and suspending Parliament in July 2021.

A few months later, Mr Saied, a retired law professor, dissolved the legislature. He said the extraordinary measures were crucial to save the country from years of political instability and to end corruption.

After her visit to Tunis, Ms Leaf was due to travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

Updated: June 13, 2023, 12:03 PM