Congress / Mideast

Congress pushes Tunisia aid compact to counter Trump cuts

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Article Summary
The fledgling North African democracy is dispatching dignitaries to argue for a multi-year memorandum of understanding to help combat terrorism and social unrest.

Tunisian officials are banking on Congress to boost US support for their fledgling democracy amid lethargic interest from the Donald Trump administration.

Pending appropriations legislation in the Senate calls on the US government to jump-start negotiations on a multi-year, bilateral aid package similar to the ones the United States has with other key allies such as Israel and Jordan. The push for more economic and security assistance is a key plank of Tunisian lobbying efforts, with dignitaries from across the political spectrum urging Washington not to abandon the only country where the Arab Spring protests were a success.

“We support any improved collaboration and cooperation between the United States and Tunisia, especially in the field of economic development and security,” Abdelkarim Harouni, the chairman of the Shura Council to Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda movement and a former minister of transportation, told Al-Monitor during a visit to Washington this week. Ennahda is part of a governing coalition with Nidaa Tunis, Tunisia’s largest secular party.

The report accompanying the Senate bill directs the secretaries of state and defense to submit a report to Congress “assessing the feasibility of establishing a multi-year MOU [memorandum of understanding]” with Tunisia within 45 days of the bill becoming law. The report argues that an MOU would “provide greater predictability required to consolidate democratic and economic gains, and combat terrorism, in Tunisia.”

Harouni is just the latest in a string of Tunisian dignitaries to make the same case. Faycal Gouia, Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States, told Al-Monitor that Tunis has long lobbied the United States to establish an MOU with Tunisia.

“It was a proposal we made to the US administration [for a] long time, but for several reasons, it has not been approved,” Gouia said. “We hope that this will allow … further support and open new horizons for cooperation between the two countries in various fields.”

The Barack Obama administration had previously signed a general MOU with Tunisia, “reaffirming the common bonds and shared values of long-standing friendship” between the two countries. But it did not specify concrete foreign assistance levels for Tunis, as other MOUs throughout the region have done.

For instance, the United States currently has a three-year MOU with Jordan, which specifies that the United States should provide $1 billion in economic and military aid to Jordan annually through the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. (A State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor that “the United States is in ongoing discussions with Jordanian officials regarding Jordan’s request for a new MOU.”) Likewise, the Obama administration signed an MOU with Israel last year guaranteeing $38 billion in military aid for fiscal years 2019 through 2028.

MOUs that set specific funding levels are particularly reassuring for countries struggling to cope with terrorism and lingering poverty in light of the Trump administration’s efforts to slash foreign aid. The State Department’s current budget proposal, for example, would hit Tunisia particularly hard, allocating only $55 million in bilateral foreign aid — a 61% decrease from the $140.4 million budgeted for fiscal year 2017.

While the Senate push for an MOU with Tunisia would have to survive reconciliation with the House version to make it into law, both chambers have explicitly rejected the Trump administration’s proposed aid cuts to Tunisia. Instead, Congress is seeking to allocate at least $165.4 million in economic and military assistance for the current fiscal year. The increase followed intensive lobbying efforts, including by Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed during a July visit to Washington.

Following up on Chahed’s outreach to congressional appropriators, Harouni met with members of the House Tunisia Caucus Nov. 28, led by Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. Harouni plans to follow up on his visit to Capitol Hill with meetings at the State Department Nov. 29.

Although Tunisia’s Interior Ministry attributed a stabbing attack on two police officers earlier this month to a “suspected militant Islamist,” Harouni confidently asserted that Tunisia has “succeeded in … defeating terrorism.” Nonetheless, he cautioned that US support is crucial to ensuring the country’s stability.

“We always try to remind our American friends that combatting terrorism is not just through military and security means; we also have to provide economic development, employment, social justice, democracy, freedom and hope to young people, as well as a moderate, progressive version of Islam,” Harouni told Al-Monitor. “We have an economic challenge to respond to the social demands of the people, and that is our main challenge right now.”

Tunisia’s plea for help is also being heard beyond the halls of Congress. In a visit to Tunis earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan touted the fact that total US assistance surpassed the $140.4 million that had been budgeted for bilateral aid.

“Our investment in Tunisia’s success has grown this year,” said Sullivan. “In 2017, the United States increased development and military assistance by more than 30% over 2016 levels to $205.4 million.”

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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