U.S. defense secretary raises concerns for Tunisia democracy

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin looks on during the 15th Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas (CDMA) in Brasilia, Brazil July 26, 2022. REUTERS/Adriano Machado/File Photo

TUNIS (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday that Tunisia's "dream of self-government" was in danger, adding to U.S. criticism of the president's expansion of powers that has already prompted accusations of "unacceptable interference".

Tunisia's President Kais Saied last month pushed through a new constitution giving himself nearly unchecked authority in a referendum that the electoral commission said had 30% turnout, though some opposition groups say the figure was inflated.

After the referendum, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and incoming U.S. ambassador to Tunis Joey Hood voiced concern for Tunisia's democracy, and Tunisian authorities summoned the acting U.S. charge d'affaires to complain.

Washington has been an important donor of both development and security help to Tunisia since its 2011 revolution that ousted autocratic ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and introduced a democratic system of government.

Tunisia is now seeking a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund to avert a collapse in public finances.

Speaking on Tuesday at a U.S. Africa Command ceremony, Austin repeated the criticism.

"Across Africa, those who support democracy and freedom and the rule of law are battling the forces of autocracy, chaos and corruption," he said.

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

"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," Austin said.

The U.S. Africa Command, headquartered in Germany, is responsible for all U.S. Department of Defense operations, exercises and security cooperation in Africa and surrounding waters.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by David Gregorio)

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