Antony Blinken on Thursday said he was concerned about the possibility of Tunisia deviating from its democratic path, calling for measures including the restoration of parliament after his meeting with Saied on Monday.
The senior US representative said Saied gave a “long explanation” of why he had taken this unprecedented step, adding that the Tunisian president had promised him that he was committed to democracy.
“The intentions he expressed to me were to bring Tunisia back to this democratic path and to act in a manner consistent with the constitution,” Blinken told Al Jazeera during a visit to Kuwait.
“But of course we have to look at the actions the president is taking, which Tunisia is taking,” he said.
Blinken expressed the hope that Tunisia “will return to the democratic path”.
“Our firm hope and expectation is therefore that Tunisia will return to this democratic path, act in accordance with the constitution, liberate parliament, have a government in place to do the work of the people, to meet their needs. “
The State Department had previously only said that Blinken had encouraged Saied to “adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights” without explicitly calling for the return of parliament.
Saied, a political newcomer when he won a landslide presidential victory in 2019, intervened after mass protests against the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
He also fired senior officials and the director of the national television station and declared what he calls a crackdown on corruption.
The takeover has been hailed by many Tunisians who are struggling to make ends meet and who are fed up with the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The young democracy has often been cited as the only success of the Arab Spring. But, 10 years later, many say they have seen little improvement in living standards and have become enraged by a prolonged political stalemate with infighting among the elite.
Blinken also said journalists’ rights must be respected by the Tunisian government following the impeachment of the head of the national television station on Wednesday and the decision to storm Al Jazeera’s office in the capital Tunis.
“My comment is that we absolutely stand up for press freedom and the ability of journalists to do their jobs,” Blinken told Al Jazeera.
“And we expect the Tunisian government to defend and respect the rights of journalists, and this is one of the things we expect from them,” he added.
His comments came a day after President Saied replaced national broadcaster Mohamed al-Dahach after officials from the Journalists’ Union and the League for Human Rights were denied access on the TV channel.
The head of the Dahach channel said he was acting on instructions from the army, which a military spokesman denied on the air. Eventually, the two guests were allowed in.
Bassam Trifi, vice-president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, was among the guests banned from accessing the channel.
He told Al Jazeera that they would “treat this exceptional situation with caution”.
“Yesterday we issued a statement that we will not accept any infringement of our freedoms, the ones we gained in 2011,” Trifi said.
“Whatever the explanation of what happened on state television, civil society is aware of any attempt to undermine our freedoms, the freedoms acquired through the struggle of the Tunisian people. We are watching closely where all of this is going, ”he added.
Ravi Prasad, head of global outreach at the International Press Institute, said Tunisians had very limited access to information since the recent political upheavals.
“After the revolution, what we witnessed was that the media in Tunisia had great freedom,” Prasad told Al Jazeera.
“But now this dearly-won freedom of the media is under threat due to the changes taking place.
“We need independent media in Tunisia right now, and we need the support of the international community and the pressure on the government, to stop harassing the media, allow media organizations like Al Jazeera…,” he added .
President Saied said parliament would be suspended for 30 days, although he told reporters the 30-day period can be extended if necessary “until the situation calms down”.
Saied accused 460 businessmen of embezzlement while decreeing a crackdown on corruption. In his remarks Wednesday evening, the president pointed out “those who plunder public money”.
He said he would assume executive power with the help of a new prime minister. This is the biggest challenge yet for a 2014 constitution that divides powers between the president, prime minister and parliament.
He also suspended MPs’ immunity, insisting his actions were constitutionally compliant.
His gesture has been criticized by the main political parties, including the Islamist Ennahda.