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Stop all financial aid to Tunisia until it returns to democracy

Tunisia’s dictatorial regime has reached a new low. An unprecedented crackdown on President Kais Saied’s critics, in which dozens of public figures, including politicians, protest organizers, lawyers, judges, union officials, the head of a leading independent radio station and influential corporate executives, were arrested in an often violent night raids, led to nationwide protests and fears of a return to autocracy.

The crackdown is the regime’s latest attempt to subdue Tunisians despairing of the authoritarian president’s inability to resolve Tunisia’s protracted economic crisis. The low turnout (the lowest since the 2011 revolution) in the December and January parliamentary elections made it clear that Saied no longer enjoys widespread public support and that the views of his critics – who had called for a boycott of the elections – resonate more among Tunisians. Saied struggles to convince the masses of the competence and legitimacy of his government, using state violence to suppress dissent.

In addition to a variety of anti-government actions, Saied accused the “traitors” arrested as part of the latest crackdown of “price fixing”, “market manipulation” and “creating food shortages”. This is a sign that the president is not only trying to eliminate all opposition to his government, but is also positioning his critics to take the blame for the dire state of the Tunisian economy.

And in another demonstration of the Said government’s fear of any meaningful criticism from a public figure, on February 18 the president personally ordered Europe’s top trade union official to leave the country after she addressed protesters at a protest organized by a influential union.

Saied accused Esther Lynch, the Irish secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation, of making statements that “obstructed Tunisia’s internal affairs” during a protest organized by Tunisia’s General Labor Union, UGTT, in the port city of Sfax.

Speaking to the protesters, Lynch had demanded the release of arrested union officials and called on the Tunisian government to take immediate action to improve the economy.

This latest major crackdown on dissent followed a similar attack on Tunisia’s independent judiciary, which saw dozens of judges arbitrarily dismissed for alleged “financial and moral corruption”. Judges, who recently appealed their dismissal and won, say they have been targeted for upholding the independence of the judiciary and refusing to follow the regime’s orders.

With all three branches of the government imprisoned, independent media silenced, unions ousted and prominent opposition figures jailed on superfluous charges, Tunisians are desperately turning to protect their country’s fledgling democracy from the Saied’s growing authoritarianism, to the international community for support.

Until now, however, world powers and international organizations have responded to the worrying state of affairs in Tunisia with little more than a figurative shrug. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk expressed concern “about the increasing crackdown on perceived political opponents and civil society”, while US State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “It is a core tenet of the US that people around the world should be able to express themselves without fear or reprisal.”

The European Union also expressed its “concern” and said it expects the government to honor its commitments to the Tunisian people.

Of course, such empty expressions of concern do not prevent Saied from dismantling Tunisia’s remaining democratic institutions and turning the country into a totalitarian dictatorship.

In the face of Saied’s relentless attempts to stifle what is left of Tunisian democracy, the international community must act decisively and urgently. Before it is too late, the world powers must put pressure on Saied’s regime to bring about a peaceful democratic transition with all the economic and political clout they have.

Since Saied seized absolute power in a coup more than two years ago, he has repeatedly refused to cooperate with the international community and ignored all calls for a speedy return to democracy. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s international partners continue their cooperation with his government, seemingly preferring a somewhat stable dictatorship to a genuine, if shaky, democracy. The United States and France continue to fund Saied’s regime with grants and direct financial aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars, despite the undeniable crimes committed against the Tunisian people. Hoping to widen the reach of its far-right migration policy, Italy has announced it supports Saied’s efforts to secure a much-needed IMF loan.

But this cannot continue. Without real outside pressure, Saied will only intensify his government’s assault on the most basic human rights of Tunisians. The international community must understand that Saied lacks integrity and has no faith in democracy. Any strategic cooperation with his regime is doomed to failure. Saied suffers from a messiah complex. From the outset of his rule, he has sought to override crucial aspects of Tunisia’s legal and political system in order to impose his quasi-religious view of politics on the country. He has gone to great lengths to dehumanize his critics and establish his crazy grand vision to save Tunisians from “evil” and “deep state” forces. Any attempt to support or cooperate with his regime can only end in disaster.

If they really want to support the Tunisian people, the world powers must make any financial aid to Tunisia conditional on the country’s return to democracy. They must make it clear to all factions of Tunisia’s powerful security apparatus that they will see no more money, including IMF loans, until they force a return to democratic rule and involve the opposition in political and economic decision-making.

Saied’s regime will continue to violently repress criticism and opposition as long as the security apparatus sees it as beneficial to support his authoritarian rule.

Several opposition forces in Tunisia have formed a united front against Saied’s regime and are fighting valiantly to free the country from yet another dictatorship. But their efforts will all be in vain until the international community pulls out its purse strings to try and convince Tunisia’s security forces that supporting democracy is more beneficial to them – and to the country.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.